UCF scientists working on NASA asteroid sample mission share experience with students

Planetary scientists Humberto Campins and Kerri Donaldson Hanna are both member of the OSIRIS-REx science team

ORLANDO, Fla. – A member of NASA’s first asteroid sample collection mission team and UCF planetary scientist is teaching a class about asteroids and comets just hours before the mission he has been working on for a decade is set to collect a sample of the asteroid Bennu.

“I’m actually going to take part of the class today to give them an update on what’s happening with the spacecraft,” said UCF Prof. Humberto Campins, adding “They have an exam a week from today, so they’re thinking more about the exam.”

The spacecraft, nicknamed OSIRIS-REx, will not be on the exam, he says, but it is very timely for his class.

[LIVE UPDATES: Follow along as NASA’s spacecraft picks up a piece of asteroid]

“I just want them to be excited,” he said. “But it is a class on asteroids, comets and meteorites, right? And so this is very relevant.”

Campins isn’t the only UCF faculty on the OSIRIS-REx team, Associate Prof. Kerri Donaldson Hanna also serves as a a participating scientist on the mission. Like Campins, she also taught class hours before the critical mission event.

Donaldson Hanna has been keeping her undergraduate students updated on the asteroid mission but Tuesday she was able to tell them, “we’re just hours away from the sampling,” and let the know how to follow along.

I think students kind of get, excited about any kind of space stuff," Donaldson Hanna said, adding “and certainly, I think, having faculty that are involved in mission, certainly gets them excited.”

Campins is teaching remotely as he is in Tucson, Arizona, with the rest of the science team based at the University of Arizona. The mission is led by Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona.

After their classes, Campins and Donaldson Hanna both met virtually with the rest of the OSIRIS-REx science team and they will discuss what the spacecraft is doing at that point. The sample collection is slated to happen around 6 p.m. ET.

A photo of the asteroid Bennu, taken by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from 85 miles away. (Image: NASA)
A photo of the asteroid Bennu, taken by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from 85 miles away. (Image: NASA)

However, the brief tap on the asteroid is all autonomous.

“It’s been programmed in a way that it can make its own decisions,” said Campins, adding “because it’s too far away for it to be sending us signals and for us to be responding, it takes about five minutes each way.”

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, will touch the asteroid for about five seconds using a long arm, stirring up regolith, or asteroid dust and rocks, to suck up into a capsule for the ride home.

Prior to the big day, the spacecraft rehearsed this touch-and-go or TAG operation twice and Campins said while it’s risky, there is about a 90% chance it will succeed.

While the spacecraft “touch and go” operation lasts only seconds when it comes into contact with the asteroid, the science already learned from studying Bennu up close is very exciting -- but the sample will tell us so much more once it’s on Earth where it can be analyzed in a laboratory.

“It’s an important step for all of humanity, we’re going to a primitive asteroid that is going to answer a lot of questions about how the solar system formed, how water and organic molecules were brought to Earth by asteroids and comets, and how life might have formed and evolved here on Earth,” Campins said.

It will take several hours after the TAG to know if the spacecraft collected enough sample to bring home or if it will need to try again. The team should know if OSIRIS-REx survived via signals detected by NASA’s Deep Space Network a few minutes after the maneuver.

If all goes well, the spacecraft will drop the capsule with the sample back on Earth in 2023 completing its mission to Bennu and back.

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