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Monday, September 25, 2023

A Canadian instrument made NASA’s asteroid retrieval attainable – and its job remains to be not over Categorical Occasions

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In slightly over every week, samples from the asteroid Bennu will streak all the way down to Earth, a landmark achievement which could not have been achieved with out Canadian assist.

On Wednesday, scientists with the Canadian Area Company (CSA) dove into how a specialised instrument supplied by Canadian consultants allowed the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to collect the highly-anticipated samples, and the way Canada goes to proceed to play a job within the evaluation of these samples, in addition to the spacecraft’s persevering with mission.

After seven years in area, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will cruise by Earth on Sept. 24 and drop its pattern capsule, which can land protected and sound within the Utah desert, if all goes in keeping with plan. The capsule is believed to hold round 250 grams of samples taken from the asteroid Bennu, however the actual quantity will not be identified till it is cracked open.

The OSISIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), which was equipped for the mission by CSA, allowed the spacecraft to create an exquisitely detailed 3D map of the asteroid.

“OLA performed a extremely key function,” John Moores, science advisor to the president of the CSA, mentioned within the digital information convention Wednesday. “It helped the mission staff choose one of the best location from which to collect that pattern of the asteroid, the one which will probably be coming again to Earth shortly, and in alternate for this contribution, Canadian scientists have been on the OSIRIS-REx science staff from the very starting.”

Canada will change into the fifth nation on the planet to obtain a pattern collected in area, Moores famous. It can obtain 4 per cent of the overall pattern for evaluation, and is engaged on constructing a facility to accommodate it. Previous to this, scientists at NASA will present a preliminary report on the contents of the pattern capsule in early October.

The samples might make clear how our photo voltaic system got here to be and even doubtlessly reply greater questions concerning the origins of the Earth.

“It has been an extremely thrilling mission, and it is unbelievable actually, to assume that we’re lower than two weeks away from the pattern coming again to Earth,” Timothy Haltigin, planetary senior mission scientist with CSA, mentioned. “I like loads of issues concerning the mission, however I feel what I like essentially the most is that it provides us the power to not solely exit and discover the photo voltaic system as it’s right this moment, however slightly this can be a mission that permits us to return in time and discover the very formation of the photo voltaic system.”


In 2020, OSIRIS-REx efficiently obtained samples from the asteroid Bennu after circling it for 18 months, taking cautious measurements.

An important measurements for pattern retrieval had been these taken by a field slightly below the scale of a microwave oven. OLA is a lidar machine; whereas radar makes use of radio frequency waves, lidar makes use of gentle pulses.

“How this works is we ship out slightly pulse of laser gentle, it scatters off an object, resembling Bennu, after which that gentle comes again in the direction of our instrument after which we detect it,” Cameron Dickinson defined. Dickinson is a workers engineer at MDA Ltd., a Canadian area know-how firm that works with CSA.

“By fastidiously measuring the time that it takes the heartbeat to exit and to come back again, and since we all know the velocity of sunshine so exactly, we are able to very, very precisely decide distance for every laser pulse.”

With assistance from a specialised mirror that directs the beam of sunshine throughout a floor, scientists had been ready to make use of this methodology to scan a broader space and create detailed maps.

When OSIRIS-REx first approached the asteroid, OLA took its measurements from round seven to eight kilometres away from Bennu’s floor. One of many asteroid’s first surprises for them was that there have been chunks of rock orbiting the asteroid, items of it that had damaged off or by no means totally adhered. The floor was additionally a lot rockier than scientists had anticipated, underlining the significance of OLA’s map to assist them discover the most secure place to the touch down on the asteroid.

“Over the course of this mission, Bennu has thrown loads of curveballs our method,” Dickinson mentioned.

At one stage in constructing the map of Bennu, the spacecraft sat simply 700 metres above the floor of the asteroid because it rotated beneath it. Photographs of OLA’s scans present extremely detailed terrain, with finely rendered textures and particular person rocks.

“In whole, we laid down greater than three billion vary measurements on the floor of Bennu,” Dickinson mentioned.

“Bennu is now essentially the most exactly surveyed physique in our photo voltaic system, which is absolutely thrilling that Canada was in a position to not solely take part on this, however present the instrument that gives such an in depth take a look at one in every of these our bodies in our photo voltaic system.”

As soon as scientists had chosen the sampling website primarily based on OLA’s map of the floor, the spacecraft moved in for the kill. However the asteroid nonetheless had yet another shock for the staff.

“Bennu did not actually put up a lot of a struggle for the sampling system,” Mike Daly, OLA lead instrument scientist and a professor at York College’s Lassonde Faculty of Engineering, mentioned within the press convention.

He defined that the sampling head, about 30 cm in diameter on the tip of a three-and-a-half-metre robotic arm, was designed to suck rocks and dirt into it by blasting nitrogen into the floor of Bennu after making bodily contact.

“Like a vacuum, however we needed to carry our personal air,” he mentioned. “So it is like a reverse vacuum cleaner.”

However the floor was far much less strong than they’d anticipated.

“(The) spacecraft was nonetheless transferring into Bennu six seconds after its first contact, and it went half a metre under the floor of Bennu. This was an enormous shock, how weak the floor was,” Daly mentioned.

“Our greatest estimates are that we have got 250 grams of pattern, plus or minus 100 grams or so. That is a lot better than the mission requirement of 60 grams and we’re going to have the ability to do so much with it.”


Though Canada will not obtain its portion of the asteroid pattern straight away, scientists are planning for the way to greatest home it already.

“We’re not on the identical timeline as NASA to obtain the pattern, it has been understood for the reason that starting, the pattern will reside at NASA for a time earlier than it is transferred to Canada,” Caroline-Emmanuelle Morisset, Program Scientist in Area Exploration Improvement at CSA, mentioned within the press convention. “We must always get between six and 14 grams.”

With even just a few milligrams of asteroid pattern, they “can do loads of science,” she mentioned, mentioning that Japan Aerospace Exploration Company’s Hayabusa 2 mission introduced again solely 5 grams of asteroid samples in 2020, and people samples are nonetheless being analyzed.

This screenshot from the visualization “To Bennu and Again: Journey’s Finish,” exhibits OSIRIS-REx performing its divert manoeuvre after releasing the asteroid pattern capsule. (NASA / Scientific Visualization Studio)

Canadian scientists say they may have the chance to check samples earlier than Canada receives its 4 per cent, however with a purpose to settle for our official portion of the pattern, they may want a spot to host the samples.

“We’re engaged on creating the power for receiving the pattern at CSA, and there was an RFP (request for proposals) that was out within the spring for the development of the room. That is the place we’re at now,” Emmanuelle-Morisset mentioned.

The ability could be geared up with what is named a “clear room,” to make sure that the samples should not contaminated by particles from the air on Earth, containing glove bins that will enable scientists to control the samples with out really touching them or eradicating them from a sealed atmosphere.

The precise timeline for receiving the samples at a facility in Canada will not be but identified.


Though the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will probably be dropping off the pattern capsule this month, its journey is way from over. The spacecraft goes to proceed travelling via area in the direction of a brand new goal: the asteroid Apophis, which is known as after the Greek time period for an Egyptian god of chaos.

When it was first detected, Apophis loomed as a doubtlessly imminent risk to the Earth, however a distant flyby in 2021 let astronomers replace their measurements to mirror that the asteroid will not come close to to colliding with Earth inside the subsequent century. Nevertheless, it’ll draw comparatively close to in 2029, and that is when the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft can have an opportunity to rendezvous with it.

That is the plan, at the very least. Within the spring of 2024, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft should fly nearer to the solar than it was initially designed to with a purpose to put it on the trail in the direction of Apophis.

“At that time, all the staff, together with Canada, will consider the well being of the spacecraft and the well being of all of the devices to proceed previous that,” Haltigin mentioned.

If all is effectively, OLA will get to scan one other asteroid. Nevertheless it will not be just like the scans it took of Bennu for a few causes, in keeping with Daly, who will nonetheless be persevering with to work with the OSIRIS-REx venture because it transforms into its new mission.

The primary motive is that Bennu was “fairly well-behaved,” and had a predictable rotation, whereas Apophis doesn’t. The spacecraft will not be capable of get as near take its measurements.

The second motive is that OLA gave its all to scan Bennu, and a few of its lasers are merely used up.

“I feel the very first estimates I put collectively for the Orbital B part advised we might do two to 3 hundred million measurements of Bennu. We did 2.7 billion measurements of Bennu,” Daly mentioned. “So it was an amazing success, nonetheless we used up that laser. So we’ll be measuring Apophis in all probability from slightly additional distance out, which forces us into our 100 measurements-a-second laser, and we not have the ten,000 measurements-per-second laser in any case.”

The scientists will nonetheless get very detailed photographs of Apophis, he added, simply not as extremely detailed as those taken of Bennu.

“We’re actually happy with what Canada completed right here,” he mentioned of OLA’s success with Bennu.

The arrival of the Bennu samples later this month is only the start, Haltigin mentioned. Asteroids like Bennu are items left over from the method that created our planets billions of years in the past, he defined, and “form of protect the circumstances and the supplies from the very starting of the photo voltaic system.”

Learning planets by their composition because it seems right this moment is like a completed chocolate chip, he mentioned. All of the substances have been blended collectively and remodeled within the course of.

“Getting a pattern from an asteroid is form of like going again right into a cosmic mixing bowl and pulling out particular person grains of sugar and a little bit of flour and perhaps a chocolate chip,” he mentioned.

“As a planetary scientist, one of the vital elementary questions we ask is, ‘How do planets type and the way do they evolve?'”

Bennu, scientists imagine, could maintain a few of these solutions. And in two weeks, we’ll start to search out out. 

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