Dec 10, 2013 12:33 AM by Rebecca Taylor
TUCSON - NASA has handpicked the University of Arizona to lead a new mission to space, and it's worth big money.
The UA has a billion dollar contract with NASA to send a spacecraft to an asteroid, named Bennu for samples.
The expected launch window is September of 2016 with the arrival sometime in 2018.
Monday night the team hit its first milestone, 999-days to launch.
Some of the instruments that will go on board the spacecraft are being designed right here in Tucson at the Michael J Drake building.
A NASA animation details what the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx will eventually look like. The University of Arizona will supply three camera systems, with one acting like a telescope, to spot Bennu.
The UA's Dr. Dante Lauretta is the lead investigator. "It has a very clever design, it has a focusing mechanism, it actually moves the secondary mirror, and it turns into a microscope when we get up close to Bennu," says Lauretta, "So we get these extremely high resolution images of the asteroid's surface."
He says those photos will help determine where on the asteroid, sampling will take place.
A robotic arm will help pluck samples that will take just five seconds to collect.
"It's basically an air filter, 30cm across and it can pick up particles 3cm or smaller, via gas stimulation. So we're going to fire a lot of gas onto the surface, it's going to blow up the gravel and rock and the filters going to catch the things that are 3cm and smaller," says Lauretta.
As the countdown to the September 2016 launch window begins, Dr. Lauretta is aiming for September 3, 2016 plus bragging rights.
"Any small problems that might arise at the launch pad, we can slip within that 39 day window, but we're hoping to follow our sibling spacecraft Maven, which just went out from the Kennedy Space Center November 18th. They got off within 2:45 seconds of the opening of their launch window, we're actually going to hope to try to beat that record."
The spacecraft will ultimately return to earth in 2023. The samples will be studied by labs around the world for generations to come.
UA scientists are hoping to engage the public, by participating in live internet chats about the mission. They're also blogging, and uploading videos of the spacecraft's progress.
Here are some of the links: