Science and Technology News

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Seeking Answers From Asteroids


You know what I love about NASA?  The fact that when they say, “Hey, we should go to an asteroid and collect a sample of it to analyze in the hopes of better understanding our universe” that they mean it.

In this case, researchers are hoping to understand some of life’s more profound mysteries by way of a very special (and dramatically named) mission.

The Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer – or OSIRIS-REx – mission will be the first of its kind to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth.  What some might call unprecedented.

And okay yes, I know that this isn’t the first time we’ve gone mining for answers from other celestial bodies.  The Stardust mission did this in 2006 when it brought back samples from a comet, but that was a small sample from a comet that was super-heated when it hit the collider.

But this is something much different.  This is something that could unlock the secrets of life itself.

This near-Earth asteroid, affectionately referred to as asteroid (101955) 1999RQ36 (must be a family name) will conduct a 500 day encounter that will create maps and studies of the asteroid, collect up to 2kg of volatile-rich regolith, which is essentially the asteroid’s sugar coating.

Asteroids are leftovers formed from the cloud of gas and dust – the solar nebula – that collapsed to form our Sun and the planets about 4.5 billion years ago.  As such, they contain the original material from the solar nebula, which can tell us about the conditions of our solar system’s origins.

OSIRIS-REx is going on a mission to collect samples about our solar system’s birth, basically.

This is pretty cool because we’ve never had the chance to tap into this unfettered resource before.  Sure, things fall from the sky all the time (see: meteorites) that we study and analyze, but by the time they plummet to the ground (and the conspiracy theorists have already posted their grainy pictures on their Tumblr accounts) it’s all sorts of contaminated.  We got our Earth all over it.  So, while we can learn a lot from these samples, we’ve never had the chance to really take and analyze uncontaminated elements like this before.

So what could we learn from this oh so scientific scan and swipe?  The possibilities are boundless.

Dr. Jason Dworkin, the director of the astrobiology analytical laboratory at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center – also the chief of the Astrochemistry Laboratory and project scientist for OSIRIS-REx – says that this mission is truly one for the ages.

“Just like the Apollo mission that brought back samples to be studied for generations, OSIRIS-REx will bring back samples to be studied for generations, allowing us to ask questions that the people who aren’t even born yet can answer.”


So how does the military fit into all of this?  Well believe it or not, the armed forces are about more than just wartime operations and training troops.  Sometimes, they help uncover some of the questions about our humble and often hypothesized beginnings.

“For OSIRIS-REx, we use many military resources.  First of all, there are all of these wonderful MIL standards that NASA takes from and works with; we’re certainly in compliance with those.  Furthermore, there’s military technology that goes into flight operations, and proximity operations.”  NASA also uses some of the same technology that’s used in military satellites.

Additionally, the spacecraft, which is set to launch in the year 2016 from NASA KSC (though some aspects of Atlas V launches are controlled from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station), will return to Hill Air Force Base in the year 2023.  Plus, as much as we want to defend our country, so too, do we want to protect our planet.  Especially if asteroid 1999RQ36 decides to pay a visit to our planet in a few years.

Yeah, that’s right; this lovely little rock could be headed straight for us in the year 2182.  To better understand the potential scientific and literal impact of this 1900 foot diameter asteroid, the OSIRIS-REx mission will give us the closer look we might need to defend against the dark falling matter.  And it’s always good to be prepared.

So before the human race goes screaming into asteroid-impact shelters (are those even a thing?), I think Dr. Dworkin and the team of research scientists on this project are making the best use of our time.  Dr. Dworkin has reasonable expectations for this mission, but when it comes down to it, it’s his interest in the organic compounds available for the origin of life that really propel him in this project.

“It is the gift that will keep on giving.  Just as Stardust revolutionized our understanding of solar system formation with micrograms of comet dust, these sample will revolutionize our understanding of solar system formation and the origin of life.  Getting an uncontaminated sample of the early solar system is of huge importance.”

And speaking of life, the universe and everything…

So where would Dr. Dworkin go if he could travel anywhere in time and space?  “I would go back to the beginning of life, take a sample of the primordial ooze, and bring it back with me to be tested.”

Anywhere in time and space and he’s still on a quest for scientific knowledge.  Oh, how delightfully like a scientist.

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Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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