Asteroid Sample Return at the University of Arizona

Asteroid Sample Return at the University of Arizona

By Emmalee Mauldin

Located down in the depths of the Gerard P. Kuiper Space Sciences Building on campus at the University of Arizona lies a laboratory for an extraterrestrial sample not even acquired yet.

The University of Arizona is the proud manager of the NASA OSIRIS-REx mission, which will be utilizing these labs in a few years. OSIRIS-REx stands for the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer. Its purpose is to visit the asteroid Bennu and return a sample of the regolith, or soil, from Bennu’s surface.

“ORIRIS-REx’s main objectives are to understand origins in the broadest sense: the origin of the solar system, the origin of the planets and in particular, how Earth is a habitable planet and why life can occur here,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx.

Scientists chose Bennu because it is dark and carbonaceous. Finding carbon is important because it is essential to life on Earth and by finding carbon on Bennu, scientists are hoping for clues into how life on our planet began.

“We’ve always been interested in where we came from and this mission is really coming after that,” said Timothy Swindle, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona (UA) and planetary scientist.

The OSIRIS-REx mission is years in the making. The UA planned and prepared for this mission for over a decade before the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in September 2016. In December 2018, OSIRIS-REx will arrive at the asteroid and begin its’ two year-long survey of the asteroid before scientists choose a place to retrieve a sample in 2020.

Swindle said that there are three “nail-biting” events for OSIRIS-REx. The first was launch, which was completed according to plan. The second event is the Touch-And-Go Sampling Maneuver (TAGSAM), which is when OSIRIS-REx will collect a sample of the asteroid. The final event is in 2023, when OSIRIS-REx will crash-land in a Utah test training range after completing its mission.

When the spacecraft is collected in Utah, the asteroid sample will be removed and processed at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. It is the same facility where the Apollo lunar rocks and other astromaterials, like meteorites and comet dust, are curated. Once the initial cataloging is completed, the samples will be sent to scientists around the world.

“When those samples are back on earth, we’re going to look at them with every chemistry instrument that’s available,” Lauretta said. “We will be picking apart this sample literally atom by atom, molecule by molecule, to really understand the history of the asteroid and ultimately the history of the solar system.”

The University of Arizona constructed its laboratory in preparation for the return of OSIRIS-REx for nearly six years. The laboratory itself is housed 30 feet below the second (or main) floor of the Kuiper Building, in the basement. Tom Zega, associate professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at UA, explained how construction began after proposals were sent and approved by both NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Zega was in charge of the renovations in the laboratories and currently manages the entire facility. The renovations to get the laboratories up to specifications took about a year and a half. The total cost for the labs is between $10-15 million – a small number considering the $1 billion total for the entire OSIRIS-REx mission.

The renovations to the facility are vitally important to the success of the research conducted there. At the completion of the renovation, highly sensitive instruments were placed inside the laboratories. These instruments do everything from breaking apart the samples, to analyzing the atomic structure of materials, to discovering isotopic breakdown. Because these instruments are so sensitive, they require very specific room conditions.

“Instruments like this are sensitive to a variety of factors: noise (acoustic noise), vibration in the floor and electromagnetic interference,” Zega said. “We had to treat the labs to make sure the room itself was within specification so that the instruments could perform.”

These treatments cover every inch of the laboratories. The floor was checked to confirm that it could, in fact, hold the weight of the instruments. Noise and acoustics were reduced by using pads glued to the walls, and even the duct work was treated for reduced acoustics. Electromagnetic interference was deferred by using materials within and on top of the walls of the laboratories. Air flow was engineered to move in specific directions and includes a wind sock. The heating and cooling of each of the rooms was retrofitted to stay within precise tolerance levels for each instrument.

“We want rooms that are very quiet, there’s no vibrations, and there’s no electromagnetic interference so we can really push the instruments to, and in some cases past, its limits,” Zega said.

The labs themselves are not clean rooms. Under certain circumstances, like with lunar samples, clean rooms are used to help prevent contamination of any kind. In clean rooms, scientists must wear full-body suits (called “bunny suits”), hair nets, and shoe covers. Zega insists that a clean room is unnecessary for most of the research conducted in these laboratories.

“Working in a bunny suit for eight, nine hours a day is very tedious and you really only want to do that if you have to do that,” Zega said. “For the type of work we do in this lab, we really don’t need to be in a clean room. It’s not necessary to get the maximum science return on these samples.”

One of the few instances when this laboratory will use a clean room for the asteroid sample is during transfer from one container to another. Contact with the sample will be very limited, which will help reduce contamination.

“In terms of contamination, we want to keep them dry and they need to be in secure facilities, secure laboratories, where their integrity is maintained,” Zega said.

Two years ago, in 2016, the lab at the UA was finally completed.

On the construction of the research labs for OSIRIS-REx, Lauretta compares the challenges of building a research lab to the challenges of building a spacecraft.

“It’s almost as challenging as building a spacecraft because you need to have the right laboratory setup, you have to have the best instrumentation in the world, and you have to be able to handle these really precious particles that we spend an enormous amount of time and resources to get these things back on Earth,” Lauretta said.

Despite the challenges of constructing the laboratories, only a small portion of the asteroid sample will be studied by researchers around the world.

“We will actually not use much of the sample,” Swindle said. “Part of the deal is that much of it is retained because we haven’t thought of the instruments that will be invented 20 years from now, but we’ll want to study this material that we’ve studied with the best instruments of today with the best instruments of the 2040’s and 2050’s.”

As technology continues to advance, engineers like Lauretta and scientists like Swindle continue missions like OSIRIS-REx. Even though this mission is not yet completed, they are already planning the next big mission.

“Once you start building big projects, you’re always looking for the next big project!” Swindle said.

The labs in the basement of the Kuiper Building are currently used for other research purposes. Lunar samples, meteorites, interplanetary dust samples and terrestrial materials have all been studied using UA’s laboratories, as well as material scientists looking at engineering materials. The facility is open to all colleges at the university as well as private industry.

“It’s the combination of instruments, the caliber of the instruments we have and the fact that they’re at a university facility (and the university that’s leading the OSIRIS-REx mission), that all make for a very unique research infrastructure,” Zega said.

Regardless of the hardships of constructing both a spacecraft and a laboratory for an unknown asteroid sample, everyone involved in OSIRIS-REx is thrilled with the progress of the mission and is excitedly anxious for what the future holds when the samples return.

“We are the explorers, the first ones to put eyes on this and it’s a journey that the whole world is invited to share,” Lauretta said.

OREx Internship
Me with a poster at the OSIRIS-REx control center at the University of Arizona
Active Galactic Videos video covering the UA’s labs for OSIRIS-REx, produced by myself and my team:
Active Galactic Videos video covering OSIRIS-REx:


To read more about OSIRIS-REx, visit their website!

For more information about Active Galactic Videos, check out their website!

This story was written in the fall of 2018 by Emmalee Mauldin.


Thank you for reading! Have you heard of OSIRIS-REx? Let me know in the comments below and like this post if you want more like it!




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