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Cameras Made At Utah State University Help NASA Collect Asteroid Sample

OSIRIS-REx launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 8, 2016, at 7:05 pm EDT aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket. (United Launch Alliance)

NORTH LOGAN, Utah – Another space milestone took place Tuesday about 200 million miles away from Earth as a spacecraft with a three-camera suite from Utah State University extended an articulated arm and scooped up some debris, known as regolith, from the surface of asteroid Bennu.

The cameras were built at USU’s Space Dynamics Lab. They are aboard NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft, or OSIRIS-REx, according to a news release from SDL.

“The successful collection of regolith from Bennu perfectly illustrates the ingenuity of the dedicated men and women from America’s storied space program, who routinely collaborate in order to provide valuable science,” said Jed Hancock, SDL’s executive director of programs and operations. “SDL is honored to be a part of this historic mission that builds upon our decades-long partnership with NASA and helps the agency achieve its vision to ‘reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.’”

The release said the three cameras on OSIRIS-Rex are known as PolyCam, Mapcam and SamCam. PolyCam gave NASA images of the asteroid from as far as 1.2 million miles away and helped the navigation system on the approach to Bennu, MapCam mapped and looked for ejections of gas and debris from the asteroid and SamCam gave close-range images that confirmed the arm had gathered the samples.

Officials gave a step-by-step explainer of the mission to gather the sample:

“The Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, TAGSAM, is the arm on the spacecraft responsible for collecting Bennu’s regolith sample and includes a round sampler head at the end. During the touch-and-go maneuver, the sampler head was extended toward Bennu. The momentum of the spacecraft’s slow, downward trajectory pushed the sampler head against the asteroid’s surface for about ten seconds—just long enough to obtain a sample. At contact, the spacecraft fired nitrogen gas onto the surface to roil up dust and small pebbles, which were then captured.

“OSIRIS-REx fired its thruster to back away from Bennu’s surface, and now the mission team will measure the sample amount by spinning the spacecraft with the collection arm extended. The team will compare the change in the spacecraft’s inertia with a previous, empty TAGSAM spin to ensure that enough sample was collected. The TAGSAM head will then be placed in the Sample Return Capsule for return to Earth. After successful stowage, the spacecraft will slowly drift away from Bennu to a safe distance, where it will stay until its departure in 2021 for the Return Cruise Phase back to Earth.”

The release said Bennu may give scientists some insight into the solar system’s primeval history and reveal the molecular origins of life and oceans on Earth.

Bennu is roughly the size of the Empire State Building and the news release said there is a high probability it could impact the earth in the 22nd century. The information gathered from the surface of the asteroid this week could be helpful in planning a mission to prevent the impact.

“It is incredibly exciting to be involved with missions like OSIRIS-REx,” said Alan Thurgood, SDL’s Civil and Commercial Space division director. “Being a part of exciting science with historically significant missions and pushing human knowledge forward motivates our team at SDL to do great work.”

Utah’s role in the mission is not over yet. The release said the OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Capsule will land in Utah’s West Desert in 2023.

There is more information, images and video on the mission on the USU OSIRIS-REx website.

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