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A Momentous Week for OSIRIS-REx

University of Arizona astronomers and other stars will be on a global stage this week for one of the biggest moments in the university’s  proud space history.

A small spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx will perform a feat once hard to imagine: with luck, it will grab a chunk of a distant tiny asteroid, and return it to Earth for decades of study, possibly casting light on the origin of life itself.

The craft, about the size of big food truck, is orbiting the asteroid Bennu 200 million miles from Earth.

The asteroid is no bigger than the Empire State Building.

Video will be at: nasa.gov/nasalive

On Monday, Oct. 19:

At noon Tucson time, 3 p.m. EDT — Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator, will be featured in a Science and Engineering video briefing with other participants from NASA.

Enos is a veteran project manager of several key University of Arizona space missions. She was previously project manager for the 2001 Mars Odyssey Gamma Ray Spectrometer team as well as the project manager for the 2007 Phoenix Thermal Evolve Gas Analyzer. 

Tuesday, October 20

2 p.m. — A live broadcast from Lockheed Martin of OSIRIS-REx’s descent to the surface of Bennu and attempt at sample collection will be hosted by Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona.

A feed from the Mission Support Area is planned to run on NASA’s media channel.

Wednesday, October 21

2 p.m. — Post-sampling news conference — and release of new images — with Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator.

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Here’s some of the global media coverage of the OSIRIS-Rex mission to pick up just two ounces of rocks left over from the formation of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. The sample maneuver is called Touch-and-Go or TAG:

From the New York Times: Dangerous Boulders

Bennu, with “the shape of a spinning top, turns out to be extremely rugged. That is going to make it difficult for … Osiris-Rex, to vacuum up a sample to take back to Earth. It was designed to collect sand and gravel, not boulders. In addition, Bennu is shooting back. “We are seeing Bennu regularly eject material into outer space,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator.

From the magazine Nature:  Getting Around Mount Doom

The space craft “will ‘fist bump’ an asteroid to reveal the Solar System’s secrets.”   Reaching  Bennu’s surface “won’t be easy. The spacecraft will have to navigate its way past a towering boulder nicknamed Mount Doom, then onto a sampling area no larger than a few car-parking spaces.” Dante Lauretta said:  “We may not be successful on our first attempt.” With success, he said, “I hope the world looks at this as a piece of good news — something we can be proud of with all the insanity that’s going on this year.”

From SciTechDaily: Oops. Target Just Got a Lot Smaller.

The spacecraft was designed to land inside an area of 2,000 square yards, about the size of a parking lot with 100 spaces. Now, it must quickly find its safe spot in an area of only about five parking spaces.

Bennu has been undisturbed for billions of years. Not only is it conveniently close and carbonaceous, it is also so primitive that scientists calculated it formed in the first 10 million years of our solar system’s history — over 4.5 billion years ago.

From Associated Press:  a Game of Touch-and-Go

The van-sized spacecraft is aiming for a small spot in the relatively flat middle of a tennis court-sized crater named Nightingale -- a spot comparable to a few parking places. “Boulders as big as buildings loom over the targeted touchdown zone.” The craft will try to “snatch a handful of rubble.”