OSIRIS REx launch in 2016

Angela M Ellis | MIT School of Science
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A group of MIT alumni, friends, and students, along with Vice President of Research Maria Zuber and EAPS Head Rob van der Hilst, joined Professor Richard (Rick) Binzel on September 8, 2016, at Cape Canaveral in Florida for the launch of NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer mission, aka OSIRIS-REx.

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Equipped with the REgolith X-ray Imaging Spectrograph (REXIS), an MIT student-built instrument, OSIRIS-REx blasted off in perfect weather conditions, accompanied by loud applause and cheering from many relieved mission team members and friends from across the United States, Canada, and beyond. The SUV-sized spacecraft is now hurtling towards asteroid Bennu to seek data and, in 2018, after a 120 million mile voyage, will alight on its surface briefly (“like a mosquito”) to suck up a dust sample that will be sealed in a capsule and dropped back to Earth in 2023. It has taken Richard Binzel and his ever-changing roster of around 60 students from MIT and Harvard a good 5 years, and a great deal of ingenuity and fortitude to overcome many technical setbacks, to perfect their instrument in time for the launch. The REXIS spectrometer will analyze the interaction of the Sun’s X-rays with the soil, or regolith, to identify chemical elements on Bennu’s surface. REXIS may also help determine the best locations for the robotic arm to reach out and grab a sample.

Asteroids are remnants from the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago, and scientists suspect that they may have been a source of the water and organic molecules for the early Earth and other planetary bodies. NASA is optimistic that precise analyses of the asteroid sample from Bennu are going to yield results far beyond what can be achieved by spacecraft-based instruments or by studying meteorites.

At a celebratory EAPS dinner held on the eve of the successful launch, Zuber (a VVIP guest of NASA) noted that EAPS and MIT faculty and students have a distinguished track record of partnering with NASA on numerous space missions from Apollo to Grail to New Horizons to OSIRIS-REx. Such missions continue to yield vital discoveries on topics ranging from the origins of life, climate change, and landscape evolution on Earth to the formation and composition of planets and their atmospheres and the potential for extraterrestrial life outside our solar system.

Binzel, EAPS Professor of Planetary Science, who has a joint appointment in Aero-Astro, wears 3 hats for OSIRIS-REx as a Science Team Co-Investigator and Principle Investigator and Instrument Scientist for REXIS. “The student-built REXIS instrument aboard NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission represents MIT at its best,” said Binzel. “We have brought together so many elements of MIT, all of which are the best in the world. We have combined the talents of the School of Science, the School of Engineering, MIT Kavli Institute, and our partners at Lincoln Laboratory to put a transformative type of new experiment aboard this NASA spacecraft. It has been a very hard climb, every step of the way. But the staff, students, and support at MIT have been up to the challenge of getting us to the launch pad and on our way to interplanetary space.”

Also present was Grant H. Stokes, head of the Aerospace Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, who leads an award-winning team that participates in the Near Earth Object Observation Program that scans space for errant asteroids that could be a threat to Earth.  Their team, in fact, discovered the asteroid Bennu that has proven to be the most enticing target for sample return yet to be identified. The Lincoln Laboratory team had been able to step in to help the students to overcome some of the many setbacks they encountered in the 5 years leading up to the launch. 

Among the VIP contingent who enjoyed the adventure were EAPS Visiting Committee member John Carlson, accompanied by his son Jack, and astronomy buff Bob Gurnitz ’60 (X), S.M. ’61 (X A), Ph.D. ’66 (X) and his wife Ellen. Carlson and the Gurnitzes know how important it is to support the students who work on these important research projects: they have directed gifts towards the James L. Elliot (1965) Graduate Student Support Fund which will be used to support EAPS graduate students in planetary sciences. The Gurnitzes were also the major supporters of an EAPS pilot summer program in planetary astronomy in August for talented high school students who will represent the United States in the 2016 International Olympiad for Astronomy and Astrophysics.