ORLANDO, Fla. – NASA's first spacecraft designed to return a sample from an asteroid is now near its target marking an important phase in the seven-year journey to asteroid Bennu and back -- however, some of the most important work must happen before the sample is taken.
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, reached the 12-mile mark from Bennu's surface just before noon Monday. It will continue to close that gap in the days ahead and go into orbit around the diamond-shaped space rock on Dec. 31.
Humberto Campins, a University of Central Florida physics professor, who specializes in studying asteroids, is on the imaging team that will help decide where OSIRIS-REx will collect that sample. Campins is one of two UCF facility working on the mission, along with Yan Fernandez.
Here's what is coming in the year ahead -- and beyond -- for the NASA's asteroid chaser:
There's a map for that
Before OSIRIS-REx reaches out its arm, known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism or TAGSAM, to "tag" the asteroid for a sample its team needs to select where that sample pick up will happen on the 1,600 feet-wide asteroid.
"This is when the really intense work starts because we need to map the asteroid and select the site," Campins said.
To do that, OSIRIS-REx's imaging team will work over the next year to build four different maps of Bennu using data collected from the spacecraft: a deliverability map, a sample-ability map, a hazard map and a science-value map.
The maps will tell the navigation team where to position the spacecraft for the sample pick up, and what areas to avoid with potential hazards, such as boulders that would prevent the TAGSAM arm from reaching the asteroid sample site.
Campins' main focus will be on the science map. He explains that they are looking for areas of scientific value that contain organic molecules and hydrating minerals -- essentially the building blocks of life.
"Minerals that contain water and also organic material, both of those are going to be very interesting," Campins said. "Really, we think this will be widespread but we want to be sure."
The best-case scenario is that the mapping efforts produce a few sample site options on the ancient asteroid for the team to choose from.
"I hope that we have lots of sampling sites and we have lots of candidates, but nature has a way of surprising us," Campins said. "I don’t know what they will be, but there will be surprises."
OSIRIS-REx is slated to collect at least 60 grams of dirt and rocks in July 2020 and bring the sample back to Earth. A capsule with the precious materials will land in the Utah desert in September 2023.
What will we learn
Preserved in the vacuum of space as a fossil of our solar system, Bennu was selected because its thought to contain fragments that are possibly 4.6 billion years old and will provide details about how our solar system formed.
"There is a lot that this asteroid is going to teach us scientifically," Campins said, including where it formed and how the asteroid got its shape.
Not only will Bennu's ancient materials provide details of how we got here, but its mission is also one of importance to Earth's safety.
Bennu passes Earth every six years in its orbit around the sun. According to NASA, Bennu could pass closer to Earth than the moon is in 2135, and possibly closer in the decades after.
By studying Bennu now, Campins said, it will help us in the future if Earth should ever need to deflect an asteroid.
'Pioneers' of the new space-mining economy
Campins told his students at UCF to "keep an eye on asteroid mining," because in the not too distant future U.S. and international companies will be mining raw materials in space.
Information collected by OSIRIS-REx mission will be crucial to the budding space-mining industry and there is a large economic incentive to study an asteroid with organic material, like Bennu is thought to have.
Eventually, it will become cheaper to mine fuel and 3D print materials in space instead of launching them. It's not a matter of if, but when.
Part of the OSIRIS-REx long acronym stands for "Resource Identification," because its looking for resources, including water, that will help future space exploration.
The European nation of Luxembourg is hoping to lead the pack and become the first to mine resources. Two U.S. companies, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, are also focused on mining asteroids.
"We are the pioneers of a space economy," Campins said.
Prof. Humberto Campins was a guest on the News 6 at Nine show Wednesday Dec. 4, watch the full interview at the top of this story.