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NASA Asteroid Mission: Digging in for Mining Savvy

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from the surface of Bennu. Credit: NASA/Univ. of Arizona

A NASA sample return mission to an asteroid is geared to provide important clues as to how to mine asteroids in the future.

Called the OSIRIS-REx – NASA short-hand for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer – this craft is now headed for launch in September 2016.

Its target is asteroid Bennu, arriving there in October 2018.The craft will return its sample collection to Earth in 2023.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems is building the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program.

The University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator institution which leads the mission. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance.

NASA announced August 5 that it selected United Launch Services LLC of Englewood, Colorado to launch the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on an Atlas V booster.

Cosmic leftovers

Just mapping and analyzing the resources in asteroids to extract material from them is a challenge. This critical experience will be gained with OSIRIS-REx.

Asteroids are lumps of metals, rock and dust, sometimes laced with ices and tar, which are the cosmic “leftovers” from the solar system’s formation about 4.5 billion years ago.

Bennu is a B-type (sub-group of “C-type”) asteroid.

Dark, carbon-rich, C-type asteroids have high abundances of water bound up as hydrated clay minerals. Although these asteroids currently have little economic value since water is so abundant on Earth, they will be extremely important if we decide we want to expand the human presence throughout the solar system.

Life-sustaining water

Although these asteroids currently have little economic value since water is so abundant on Earth, they will be extremely important if we decide we want to expand the human presence throughout the solar system, explains Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, principal investigator for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.

“With launch costs currently thousands of dollars per pound, you want to use water already available in space to reduce mission costs. The other thing you can do with water is break it apart into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, and that becomes rocket fuel, so you could have fuel depots out there where you’re mining these asteroids,” Lauretta says.

The other thing C-type asteroids have is organic material — they have a lot of organic carbon, phosphorus and other key elements for fertilizer to grow your food, Lauretta added in a NASA press statement.


OSIRIS-REx will be a proof-of-concept mission. That is, can you go to an asteroid, get material, and bring it back to Earth, says Lauretta. “Next, people will have to industrialize it so that the economy works out, so for the recoverable value in any given asteroid, you’re spending half that to bring it back.”

The mission will develop important technologies for asteroid exploration that will benefit anyone interested in exploring or mining asteroids, whether it’s NASA or a private company,” Lauretta notes.

Among the scientific outputs the spacecraft is expected to deliver is to accurately measure how the tiny push from sunlight alters the orbit of Bennu. That force is called the Yarkovsky Effect.

By gauging this influence, that will help astronomers better predict this influence on the path of any asteroid that presents an impact risk to Earth.

Measurements will quantify the Yarkovsky Effect on this potentially hazardous asteroid, thus providing a tool to aid in securing the Earth from future asteroid impacts.

By Leonard David


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