published Saturday, January 4th, 2014

University of Arizona to lead mission to land unmanned craft on asteroid

A simulation of an asteroid approaching the Earth is seen in this file image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech.
A simulation of an asteroid approaching the Earth is seen in this file image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

PHOENIX — The University of Arizona is leading a $1 billion project to land an unmanned craft on an asteroid that may pose a hazard to Earth around 200 years from now.

The school is heading a project called OSIRIS-Rex that is scheduled for a September 2016 launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., The Arizona Republic reports.

According to the project's mission, the unmanned NASA craft is slated to bring back a sample of asteroid Bennu, which is a third of a mile in diameter.

Scientists say that if Bennu hit the Earth, it would gouge a crater four miles wide and cause widespread damage for hundreds of miles.

One calculation puts the probability of collision in 2182 at 1 in 1,800.

The contract for the mission is the university's largest space contract to date.

Between now and early April, NASA will conduct critical design reviews on the mission and the spacecraft components and instruments. The reviews are a necessary step before construction can begin.

"It's really like a test run for building the flight hardware," said Dante Lauretta, a University of Arizona professor of planetary science and the project's principal investigator.

The spacecraft, which will runs on solar power, will be equipped with high-resolution cameras and instruments that can analyze the asteroid's composition.

One instrument is being built at Arizona State University by renowned Mars researcher Phil Christensen and is similar to technology already being used on the Red Planet.

Scientists say analyzing the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid and obtaining a sample will enable them to more precisely estimate the likelihood of a collision with Earth. They also expect to find out more about the formation of our solar system.

Most asteroids pose no threat. The chunks of rock or metal burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. But on rare occasions, large ones can cause damage. The mile-wide Meteor Crater, east of Flagstaff, was created by an asteroid 50,000 years ago.

The spacecraft is expected to arrive near the asteroid in 2018. It will spend more than a year evaluating the surface and rehearsing the sampling maneuver.

Bennu has hardly any gravity, so the spacecraft can't stay there. Instead, it will perform a touch-and-go procedure, using a robotic arm to scrape up a sample within a few seconds.

In May 2016, the spacecraft is expected to head to its launch site to prepare for a September departure. Scientists and engineers chose the date because that is when the asteroid is closest to Earth and easiest to reach.

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