NASA’S OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft has begun thermal vacuum testing, bringing it another step closer to heading into space.
Many of you know Osiris as the Egyptian god of the afterlife, transformation and regeneration. OSIRIS-REx is not directly named after this cultural god, but the spacecraft is making leaps and bounds toward its goal: to take samples of an asteroid and journey home to Earth.
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The mission is to visit the asteroid Bennu, which scientists believe may hold vital clues about the origins of solar system, as well as samples of the water and organic matter that found their way to Earth. The name of the craft is quite a mouthful: NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx). This name is well-suited to its mission.
Environmental Tests Are Needed
Currently, the spacecraft is scheduled to undergo thermal vacuum testing at Lockheed Martin's facility (Colorado), which will recreate the weather conditions of extreme hot and cold in outer space. Air is sucked out of the 65-foot-tall thermal vacuum chamber the craft is stored within.
Environmental testing like this is necessary to prepare the craft for the real world. The craft is set to experience temperatures as low as 274 degrees Fahrenheit as liquid nitrogen fills the chamber. At regular intervals, a brilliant beam is turned on to mimic the heat of the sun. The craft will be monitored 24 hours a day during its testing phase of 22 days.
Of course, many sites and teams of scientists and engineers are working together to make the launch possible. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Maryland) supervises mission administration and assurance, systems engineering and mission safety. The University of Arizona at Tucson heads up observation orchestration and procedural processing and oversees the science team. OSIRIS-REx’s principal investigator is Dr. Dante Lauretta, from the University of Arizona. Lockheed Martin Space Systems (Denver) is responsible for building OSIRIS-REx.
Six Months of Mapping an Asteroid
After a three-year journey, OSIRIS-REx will stop within three miles of the asteroid and begin a six-month process of mapping its surface. After choosing a location, the spacecraft will use a robotic arm to pick up asteroid samples. At least two ounces of material will be collected and returned to Earth in 2023. The asteroid is about six football fields in size — 1,900 feet in diameter.
Think of the samples as a snapshot of the solar system’s beginnings. Organic molecules have been found in meteorites and comet samples. The craft is going right to the source to map out and recover more samples, which will hopefully reveal vital information about how life began.
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OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to launch in September and will be gone for seven years. Keep tabs on the launch via Twitter at @OSIRISREx.