Arizona Technology and Innovation: Asteroid Exploration

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The newly announced OSIRIS-Rex NASA mission to collect a sample of an asteroid and return it to Earth will include an instrument built at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). This Thermal Emission Spectrometer, similar to those used on the Mars Rovers, will be the first such instrument for spaceflight to be built at ASU. In addition to a background report on asteroids and OSIRIS-Rex, Mission Instrument Scientist Phil Christensen will discuss the technology and challenges associated with the project.

Ted Simons: The final launch of the space shuttle is set for Friday, but a new era in space exploration has already begun. NASA recently announced its latest mission -- Osires-Rex. The mission involves learning more about earth's history by obtaining samples of an asteroid that's headed in this direction.

David Majure: It's called asteroid 1999RQ36. One third of a mile in diameter and possibly on a collision course with earth. But long before such an event could take place, the NASA mission, Osires-Rex, will intercept the asteroid and take an unprecedented look at this important celestial body.

Meenakshi Wadhwa: Asteroids are some of the oldest materials that formed in the solar system. 4.5 billion years ago when the dust was collapsing to form the solar system, these are among the first solid objects that formed and represent a window into the past.

David Majure: Part of the program is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2016 and rendezvous with the asteroid in late 2019. To collect a pristine sample of rock, soil and dust and bring it back for analysis, roviding a rare opportunity for researchers, including Dr. Meenakshi Wadhwa and her team at ASU's center for meteorite studies.

Meenakshi Wadhwa: There's all kinds of asteroid that's represent all materials. This particular type has -- I think it has carbon in it, and that's kind of important because it might actually have organic compounds in it. A composition similar to the asteroid we're going to might have impact with the early earth and brought along organic materials that provided the chemistry to originate life here and, you know, obviously a big question of interest, how did life originate on our planet and that's one of the important questions that we'll be -- will be addressed.
David Majure: Prior to the collection of sample, Osires-Rex will spend over a year exploring the asteroid using a suite of instruments including a thermal emission spectrometer that twill map the composition of the asteroid. It's technology previously used on the Mars exploration rovers and helps demonstrates the complexity of such a mission. For NASA and all of those involved in the effort, Osires-Rex represents a critical opportunity to gain a not only a wealth of information about earth's past but also to provide a steppingstone for future human space exploration.

Ted Simons: Joining me now to discuss Osires-Rex is ASU researcher and instrument scientist for the mission, Phil Christensen. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us, you're welcome. Expand on what we heard. The goal of this particular mission.

Phil Christensen: There's a lot of asteroids in the similar system. We -- solar system. This one we think dates from the beginning of the solar system and has organic compounds and may have led to life on earth and we want some of that stuff in our laboratory. Meteorites -- to get fresh unaltered stuff, you need to go there and get it and bring it back. It's going to tell us a lot about the beginnings of our solar system.
Ted Simons: How much of a sample would be taken?

Phil Christensen: It's about four or five pounds. It would make a nice pile on the desk. Not a tiny speck. Enough so we can send it out and analyze it and check -- a lot of different ways to figure out what's what it's made of.

Ted Simons: And this particular asteroid has the highest probability of getting up close and personal, huh?

Phil Christensen: It was picked because it's unique and easy to get to and organic stuff and then turned out it's the most likely one of hundreds of thousands to eventually hit the earth which give us a good reason to go there. If this thing is going to hit some day, we need to know enough about it to deflect it.

ed Simons: 150 years from now --

Phil Christensen: Not in our lifetime, but someone will be on the earth and make someone have a bad day. The more we can help out - we'll help future generation.

Ted Simons: Talk about ASU's role in the mission and the thermal emission spectrometer.
Phil Christensen: We've made four or five and sent them to Mars and in the past, they've been built by aerospace companies in California. ASU didn't have the expertise to build the complex devices on campus. But we worked hard and started this new school and attracted the talent and the people. I spent the last couple of years convincing NASA that we can build this thing on the campus using ASU employees. That's a huge step. And so for me, that's a big deal with this mission. To take what we've done and build it right here in Tempe.

Ted Simons: And that spectrometer looks at infrared light?

Phil Christensen: Every object emits infrared light and does in a unique way so we can look at that infrared light and tell what the material is made out of. What rocks and minerals. So you and I are giving off a unique spectrum or fingerprint that the infrared light can pick up and I can tell what that's made of. We map it and figure out the minerals and get some.

Ted Simons: Talk about the other challenges, regarding the mission and again, it's got to help ASU's status in terms of science and technology.

Phil Christensen: It does. There are two or three universities in the world that build these types of instruments on -- on the campus. So in terms of recruiting the best students in the world, the best researchers in the world, the best staff in the world, it makes my job easy. I can say, hey, we're building this thing, come to ASU, it's the place to be. So it's huge, I think, for the university to increase our stature.

Ted Simons: And the launch isn't for quite a while, correct?

Phil Christensen: These missions, it's a long process. Five years from now until launch but it's going to be a very hectic time. Design it, build one of a kind never been built before gizmo and takes a while to make these things. Five years to launch, a few years to get there. The samples won't come back for a dozen years.

Ted Simons: Yeah.

Phil Christensen: That's the nature of space exploration. It takes a long time.

Ted Simons: Which keeps the state in the hunt for that amount of time.
Phil Christensen: Right. It keeps us in the fore front and allows us to say - hey, this is the place to be! We are doing some really exciting stuff.
Ted Simons: We keep hearing you learn about a asteroid, you learn about the earth. Especially the ancient history of the earth. Talk to us about that.

Phil Christensen: You and I are made up of organic materials. That stuff had to come from somewhere. Recent thinking is that that organic material that makes up living things may have been come from these kind of asteroids. So as the earth was forming the stuff that makes up water and rocks and air, that the organic compounds may have come from these asteroids and we're guessing how did life start?

Ted Simons: And you get this sample, this information, are you expecting some big findings out of this?

Phil Christensen: Exactly. This is a first. We've never held this type of stuff in our hands, we're going to learn a lot. Who knows what we'll find.

Ted Simons: It's absolutely fascinating stuff and good to have you on the show. Thanks for joining us.

Phil Christensen: My pleasure.

Phil Christensen: Mission Instrument Scientist, ASU;

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