Last fall, Richard Binzel, professor of planetary sciences in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, was awarded the NASA Silver Achievement Medal for exceptional contributions to the astronomical characterization of the target asteroid Bennu of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission.
NASA’s Honor Awards are presented to government and non-government individuals or teams by NASA center directors for a stellar achievement that supports one or more of NASA’s core values. The NASA Silver Achievement Medal is NASA’s second highest award that can be bestowed on a civilian (non-government) scientist.
As the inventor of the Torino Scale, a method for categorizing the impact hazard associated with near-Earth objects such as asteroids and comets, his ongoing telescopic research includes the spectral characterization of asteroids posing a potential hazard to Earth as well as those that may be most easily reachable by future robotic and human missions—such as OSIRIS-REx. As a co-investigator, he leads the mission’s asteroid spectroscopy and the development of the student-built instrument, the Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrograph (REXIS). It took five years and a great deal of ingenuity from Binzel and his ever-changing roster of 60 students from MIT and Harvard to overcome technical setbacks and perfect their device in time for launch in 2016. And now, on December 3rd, the SUV-sized spacecraft carrying their instrument will enter its final orbit around Bennu. It will spend over a year mapping the asteroid before scientists pick a site for a sample to return to Earth—with REXIS playing a key role in helping to find that spot by analyzing the interaction of the Sun’s X-rays with the soil, or regolith, to identify chemical elements on Bennu’s surface.
Known as one of the world’s leading scientists in the study of asteroids and Pluto, Binzel has been an EAPS faculty member for nearly 30 years and holds a joint appointment in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 1994, Binzel was named an MIT Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow in recognition of his dedication to teaching.
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