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NASA to launch asteroid sampling mission. Who gets to keep the rock?

NASA will launch its asteroid-sampling mission next week, but when it returns, the space rock will be divided among the mission partners.

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    NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is seen on display at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Aug. 20.
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NASA's first asteroid-capture mission to the space rock Bennu is preparing for launch on Sept. 8, and researchers expect it back more than seven years from now, on Sept. 24, 2023.

It's not too early to decide who will take the asteroid home for keeps.

NASA plans to scatter the asteroid to its partners around the world, a form of scientific sharing that has become common in an age of tighter budgets for astronomical discovery.

Since cuts to the space budget began in the 1990s, "NASA’s come to realize that to get anything big done it has to reach out," says W. Henry Lambright, author of "Space Policy in the 21st Century" and a professor at Syracuse University in New York. "The incentives are greater now to reach out than before."

Researchers are hoping for 2 ounces (60 grams) of asteroid, according to a press release, and for its first six months on Earth, the sample will stay at the Johnson Space Center's Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office in Houston, where NASA's meteorite collection and the Apollo moon rocks are already stored, says Laurie Cantillo from NASA's Washington communications office.

Once they have cataloged the sample's contents, NASA scientists plan to divvy them up among the mission's partners around the world.

One-quarter will go directly to the OSIRIS-REx science team for study, according to Popular Science. Of the remaining 75 percent, 5 percent will go to NASA's base in White Sands, N.M., as a type of insurance, with the Canadian and Japanese space agencies receiving 4 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.

"The goal is to have it available to be studied for decades to come," Ms. Cantillo tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Dividing up the both work and findings has become increasingly typical, Dr. Lambright tells the Monitor, although the nature of collaboration is most apparent in crewed missions, such as those aboard the International Space Station. He notes that NASA's internal culture has shifted by necessity from the do-it-yourself attitude of the moon landings to the international and commercial partnerships that are now typical.

"Historically they feel they know more than anybody and have been reluctant to reach out," Lambright says. "The incentives are greater now to reach out than before."

NASA has begun to contract out some work to other agencies and companies while still doing the research its scientists want.

Even "a tiny grain" from a space rock untouched by Earth's inhabitants and atmosphere is worth "a whole universe" in terms of research, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta told Popular Science. Asteroids are "cosmic time capsules" from which scientists can infer some of the original ingredients present during planetary formation and the development of life, according to Popular Science.

OSIRIS-REx will be sampling from Bennu, a particularly carbon-rich asteroid that scientists from Canada, Japan, and the United States will scour for organic compounds that hint at life.

"We believe Bennu is a time capsule from the very beginnings of our solar system," Dr. Lauretta told ABC News. "So the sample can potentially hold answers to the most fundamental questions human beings ask, like 'Where do we come from?'"

But no agency is searching alone. Japan's space agency, which attempted the first asteroid mission back in 2010, has also launched a spacecraft to a different asteroid. When the missions return, each team will swap both a portion of its asteroid sample and several researchers, so both can benefit from the two missions, says Erin Morton, communications lead on the OSIRIS-REx team.

"Instead of just being able to study one asteroid sample, we will actually have two asteroid samples to work with," Ms. Morton tells the Monitor.

Canada is earning its sample by supplying expertise in space. The Canada Space Agency built the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter, which the spacecraft will use to build a 3D map of Bennu. The tool can scan the asteroid without touching it by using a radar-like laser system, says Morton, calling it "mission critical."

Canada will distribute its share of the asteroid among several of its universities, giving the next generation a chance to participate in the discovery.

What remains will be saved, OSIRIS REx program executive Gordon Johnston has said, "for the science questions we haven’t figured out to even ask yet, and the science laboratory instruments that we haven’t even developed yet."

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