OSIRIS-REx: Tapping Asteroid RQ36

Dante Lauretta, Ph.D., came into the UA as a major in math. Showing great promise, he quickly got accepted into the Space Grant Undergraduate Research Program.

“That really triggered my interest in the formation of planetary systems,” he recalls, “and that led me to an interest in meteorite science, understanding the origin of organic material, ultimately led to my leading the OSIRIS-REx mission.”

Today, Lauretta is the principal investigator on the $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission, a joint effort between NASA, Lockheed Martin, and the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, will return a sample of pristine, carbon-rich material from asteroid 1999 RQ36. Specifically, researchers are targeting to find organic compounds that may have been precursors to key biomolecules like proteins and nucleic acids.

The beauty of the project is that it is not designed as a one-shot deal; from the beginning, the effort is designed to fuel research around the world for decades to come.
“Not only will the science team get the material and perform all the analyses that we have planned to achieve our science objectives,” explains Lauretta. “Any laboratory on Earth will be able to request that sample from NASA to test hypotheses and scientific ideas that we haven’t even conceived of on our mission team yet.”

What is more, at 575 meters in diameter and orbiting the sun every 1.2 years, RQ36 happens to be potentially the most hazardous asteroid in our solar neighborhood. It nears the Earth once every six years and there is a slight chance – about one in 1800 – that the asteroid could impact the Earth in the year 2182. OSIRIS-REx aims to learn as much detail as possible so as to reduce that uncertainty and help ensure the security of our home planet.

Mission Control at the University of Arizona

All of the science operations, from the commanding of the instruments to the processing of the data and the selection of the sample site will occur at the University of Arizona, in the very same building that housed mission control for the 2007 Phoenix Mars mission. That’s a natural for the institution which has been a leader in space sciences since the early days of NASA.
“The University of Arizona is widely recognized as the premier educational institute for planetary science,” says a proud Lauretta. “When we look at the rankings for research institutions, the only two that rank higher are NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

Lauretta and the OSIRIS-REx team are actively engaging undergraduates in the mission. In participating, undergraduates as well as graduates are certainly benefiting from participating in the science, but they are also supporting the engineering, the software, and the business management around the mission.

Christmas in September, 2023

“I know that we are going to be surprised when we get to the asteroid,” says Lauretta. “Every person on this team has a notion in their head as to what they think that asteroid is going to look like. We’ve never looked at a carbon-rich body like this up close before. My dream is that we find the equivalent of a tar pit: an organic-rich pool of material that has formed on the surface of that asteroid that is loaded with organic compounds that have never been observed or detected in extra-terrestrial material before.”

On September 24, 2023, the OSIRIS Rex sample return capsule will land in the Utah desert. There, Lauretta as the principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx will be the first person to get to examine the samples of RQ36.

“It’ll be the best Christmas I ever had,” he says. “Christmas in September.”