WASHINGTON — The asteroid sample-return mission set to launch in 2016 could help NASA figure out how to haul a space rock back to the Moon for astronauts to examine next decade, a senior agency official said here April 30.

“I think the two missions could have a lot of synergies,” Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said at NASA headquarters here following a presentation by the scientist in charge of the robotic Osiris-Rex asteroid sample-return mission. 

As part of a plan to bring a 10-meter asteroid back to lunar space to provide a destination for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and its Space Launch System booster, the Obama administration has charged NASA’s Planetary Science Division with stepping up its asteroid detection efforts. The White House wants to double the money NASA spends on these activities to about $40.5 million as part of early planning for the asteroid retrieval mission, which could launch as soon as 2021. 

Green expects the lessons learned by operating in close proximity to the 500-meter diameter asteroid the $800 million Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, as Osiris-Rex is formally known, will map and sample later this decade will come in handy when NASA sends a solar-electric tug to capture and relocate a smaller asteroid.

“The people that are going to operate the asteroid retrieval mission are going to be sitting in the control room with the Osiris-Rex operators, learning the craft,” Green said in a May 2 phone interview. “When we make a comparison with the next mission, we see a lot of parallels. We’ve got to get up close and personal, we’ve got to rendezvous with an asteroid. Osiris-Rex will have already done that.”

Osiris-Rex, to be built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, was selected in 2010 as the fourth in NASA’s New Horizons series of competitively awarded medium-size planetary science missions. Formal planning for the mission began in 2003, but astronomers inside and outside of NASA have been searching for the right asteroid to sample since the late 1990s, said Dante Lauretta, a professor in the Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and principal investigator for the mission.

Observers had to find an asteroid that was conveniently located for a round trip from Earth, and covered with enough dust and loose rocks for Osiris-Rex to grab at least 60 grams worth of surface material, and potentially as much as 2 kilograms. To do so, the Osiris-Rex team leveraged feedback from amateur observers as well as international collaborations between radio astronomers and asteroid experts at NASA and other space agencies. The team chronicled its search for the right asteroid in a document called Design Reference Asteroid, Lauretta said. The document is “kind of the engineering guidebook as the [Osiris-Rex] design team goes forward on the flight system, on the cameras, and other instruments and even on the ground system,” Lauretta said. 

The asteroid NASA hopes to find for the relocation mission will be very different from the 500-meter diameter asteroid Bennu, formerly known as 1999 RQ36, that Osiris-Rex will visit. For one thing, the asteroid NASA wants to haul back to lunar space will be much smaller, and probably rotating much faster as it orbits the sun, Lauretta said.

Construction on Osiris-Rex flight hardware is set to begin early next year, assuming the project passes its critical design review in December. In the nearer-term, Osiris-Rex has a confirmation review with the NASA Program Management Council on May 15, Lauretta said. Projects that fail to get confirmation at that step of NASA’s internal review process are usually canceled.

As a New Frontiers mission, Osiris-Rex’s costs are capped at $800 million, excluding a launch vehicle. 

“The total budget is the $800 million cost, plus a student experiment called [Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer] out of [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and then the launch vehicle,” Lauretta said. “We’re at about $1.05 billion, when you add all three of those up.”

NASA, not Lauretta, is responsible for finding and paying for Osiris-Rex’s launch. The agency’s Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida is zeroing in on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 411 rocket, Lauretta said here. The 411 variant carries a single solid-fuel strap-on booster for added thrust off the pad.

“That’s what we’re designing to right now,” Lauretta told SpaceNews after his presentation.

Osiris-Rex is scheduled to launch in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and spend the next two years traveling to asteroid Bennu. After spending roughly 500 days mapping the asteroid from a distance of less than 5 kilometers, Osiris-Rex will get close enough to the asteroid to grab samples from its surface and then begin the long trip home, landing in the Utah desert in September 2023. Sample curation and analysis, also part of the $800 billion New Frontiers mission budget, will continue into 2024. 

The University of Arizona-led Osiris-Rex team will hang on to 25 percent of the asteroid sample their spacecraft recovers. NASA will get the other 75 percent, which will be made available to researchers around the globe. Samples will be stored at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and “will be available in our long-term archive and will go through the normal distribution requests from all over the world,” Green said.

The New Frontiers program was put into NASA’s budget in 2003. In the 2014 budget request released April 10, the agency said it wants to launch a New Frontiers mission about every five years. So far, NASA is on pace to do so. The first New Frontiers mission, the New Horizons probe to the Pluto system, launched in 2006. A Jupiter probe called Juno launched in 2011 and is en route to the gas giant. The five-year launch cadence would continue if Osiris-Rex lifts off in 2016 as planned.

The next New Frontiers competition is expected to begin in “mid- to late 2015,” according to Green.


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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...