Meet a Mission Planner

As a space science researcher at Lockheed Martin, Beau Bierhaus gets to work with engineers and scientists from NASA, industry and universities to plan scientific missions to space that may provide some of the greatest clues yet about the origins of our solar system.  

For the upcoming mission to the small asteroid Bennu, the OSIRIS-REx science team, led by the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, is responsible for planning out all of the requirements needed to return a sample of regolith—a scientific term for space dirt—from the asteroid. They believe the materials collected will be representative of the most primitive bodies that were part of the formation of Earth and the inner terrestrial planets.

What exactly does it take to get a mission like NASA’s OSIRIS-REx off of the ground? As Bierhaus puts it, tons of innovation and creativity.

“OSIRS-REx is a great example of the creative work that we do here,” Bierhaus said. “We are sending a spacecraft millions of miles away to land on a 500-meter object, go down to the surface of it, collect a sample and then bring it back to Earth. These are really big challenges to wrap your head around, but we are up to the challenge.” 

Planning A Mission

In planning a mission, scientists like Bierhaus have to carefully weigh the scientific value of their research against other factors like time, cost and safety—and it’s not always easy.

“The universe has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve for surprising us,” said Bierhaus.

So, what are a few factors scientists and engineers consider when planning a mission like OSIRIS-REx? According to Bierhaus, there are several key considerations:

Getting to the surface safely: Orbiting and maneuvering around a small body with a tiny gravitational force is very different from orbiting a planet because small perturbations to the spacecraft have a much greater effect. To ensure the spacecraft gets to the surface as intended, the team plans a set of practice runs during which the spacecraft incrementally gets closer to the surface. By the time of the actual sampling event, the team will have a very good understanding of operating the spacecraft in the microgravity environment.

Keeping the spacecraft safe: The spacecraft must remain safe during the sampling event.  Because of the uncertainties in the surface properties of the asteroid, the team has run numerous “what-if” scenarios to ensure the spacecraft remains safe during the brief sampling contact with the asteroid.

Collecting a sample: The team has tested the sample collection device, called TAGSAM, on a wide variety of material types, temperatures and particle sizes to verify its ability to collect loose material. Once at the asteroid, the team will use data from the science instruments to identify the best region(s) on the asteroid to collect material.

Once the sample is collected and returned to Earth in 2023, scientists hope that it will give us major clues to some of the biggest questions existing about our world—like where water on Earth may have come from.

“I’m one of those people who was fascinated by space and knew that this was something I wanted to do when I grew up,” Bierhaus said. “Working at Lockheed Martin and being involved in OSIRIS-REx is definitely a manifestation of that.”