Museum Scientist Will Oversee Sample Analysis For 2016 Mission to Asteroid

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a robot collecting sample from an asteroid
OSIRIS-REx will use a robotic arm to pluck samples from a near-Earth asteroid. The mission, called Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth. 
Image: © NASA.

Geologist Harold C. Connolly, a research associate in the Museum’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, will oversee sample analysis on the first U.S. mission to collect material from an asteroid and bring it to Earth for study.

NASA announced the new mission-which is called Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx-in late May as the third mission in its New Frontiers Program. An unmanned spacecraft will be launched in 2016 to the near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36 and will travel for four years to its destination. After OSIRIS-REx performs surface mapping of the asteroid—a process that may take up to 505 days—Connolly will be responsible for recommending locations most suitable for sampling.

“We will narrow it down to several choices to select the best location based on low risk to the spacecraft and on chemical signatures” found during surface mapping, says Connolly, who is also professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the City University of New York.

The spacecraft will use a robotic arm to collect at least 60 grams of material, which will be brought to Earth in 2023 for worldwide distribution for study. As mission sample scientist, Connolly will prepare the plan that specifies which researchers will receive material for analysis. In advance of the launch, Connolly will be helping to coordinate and integrate studies of the asteroid’s spectroscopy and geology, which will draw on data from ground-based observations of RQ36 and reference meteorites, including specimens in the Museum’s collection.

Asteroids, which contain original material from the solar nebula that gave rise to our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago, yield important clues about the formation of the solar system and planets. OSIRIS-REx aims to bring back pristine samples for study.

“Sample return sets the highest standard for unmanned missions beyond Earth, because samples “keep on giving” as we develop better instrumentation in our laboratories,” says Denton Ebel, associate curator in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Museum. “Samples can be returned to over and over again as new questions are raised and new ideas are proposed. For example, the Museum houses a large collection of asteroid samples, the meteorites. In this case we will know the exact source, and the samples will be unaffected by entry into Earth’s atmosphere.”

In addition to collecting samples, OSIRIS-REx will gather data to help scientists better understand RQ36’s orbit, information that can help develop strategies to deflect asteroids that approach the Earth.

Connolly is a co-investigator on the mission with Principal Investigator Michael Drake of the University of Arizona in Tucson.