Season One | Episode 2
A Match Made in Space: OSIRIS-REx and Bennu, Part I
In this episode, we look at a match made in Space between an asteroid named Bennu and a cutting-edge spacecraft named OSIRIS-REx. Bennu, an asteroid larger than the Empire State Building, is an ancient relic of our solar system with more than 4.5 billion years of history to share. OSIRIS-REx, a cutting-edge spacecraft built by Lockheed Martin, launched in 2016 on a mission to meet Bennu for an extraterrestrial rendezvous.
We launch into a special look at this unexpectedly rocky relationship and what scientists could learn from Bennu’s samples that OSIRIS-REx is bringing back to Earth. Stick around for our flashforward with experts discussing what it will take to "untether" humans from Earth in the future.
Thank you to our guests on this episode of Lockheed Martin Space Makers for their time and expertise:
Dante Lauretta from the University of Arizona
Beau Bierhause and Sandy Freund from Lockheed Martin
To dig deeper into the incredible mission referenced in today’s episode, please follow these links:
[00:00:00] Host: Welcome to Lockheed Martin Space Makers. The podcast that takes you out of this world for an inside look at some of our most challenging and innovative missions. My name is Ben, and I'll be your host. This season, we'll explore the future of space with past and present missions that are shaping our path forward and chat with experts about what they think the space industry will look like 30, 40 even 50 years from now. Now let's go for launch.
[00:00:35] Today's episode is the beginning of an incredible mission broken down into a two-part series called “A Match Made In Space: OSIRIS-REx and the Asteroid Bennu.” In part one, we'll learn the why behind this mission and how a spacecraft like OSIRIS-REx even gets off the ground. In part two, we'll get up and close with asteroid Bennu, as the details of this mission unfold.
[00:00:56] OSIRIS-REx isn't a time machine, but the samples it returns will allow us to travel billions of years into the past, allowing scientists to study the formations of our solar system and how the origins of life may have come to be on earth. This mission is also shaping the future as we speak, setting the stage for sample-return missions from some of the most extraordinary locations in our solar system.
[00:01:19] In our flash forward segment, we'll explore what the future might look like for deep space exploration and sample collection brought on by the miniaturization of spacecraft. Imagine flying into sinkholes on comets, to collecting particles from the water spewing icy moons of Saturn. Now, let's kick off part one of this incredible mission with a few scientists who have been working on the sample-return mission from its earliest stages.
[00:01:44] Beau: My name is Beau Bierhaus and I'm a senior research scientist at Lockheed Martin and I work on active flight programs such as OSIRIS-REx.
[00:01:56] Dante: My name is Dante Lauretta. I'm a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona. I serve as the principal investigator for NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample-return mission. Basically, I'm the scientist in charge of the program.
[00:02:09] Beau: The, a core goal of the mission is to...
[00:02:12] Dante: Get out to this asteroid, find the best spot on the surface, grab as much material as we can and bring it back to the earth for study in our laboratories. Our mission is really about going back in time to the formation of the solar system to find the source of organic material that led to the origin of life here on Earth.
[00:02:31] Beau: OSIRIS-REx is a mouthful as an acronym, and so it's even more of a mouthful as a full mission title. So, each of the letters has a corresponding word, it stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, so that's the OSIRIS part, and then the REx is for Regolith Explorer.
[00:02:53] Host: Let's take a moment to break down what Beau and Dante just said. OSIRIS-REx is an acronym that represents the different objectives for the mission. And it's also the name of the spacecraft going out to this asteroid. The idea is to fly out to an asteroid, take a sample of the surface and bring it back to earth to study. And the why behind the mission is that they might discover the source ingredients that lead to life here on Earth. Finding these source materials would be an incredible discovery, if they could pull it off. So, one of the first things you have to do is find the right asteroid, then you have to determine if you have the technical ability and the know-how to accomplish the mission. So, let's start with what exactly is an asteroid?
[00:03:34] Dante: Asteroids are small bodies in space. They're much, much smaller than planets, smaller than most moons. They are what we call planetesimals. They're distinct from comets in that the asteroids tend to come from the main asteroid belt, which is a region in our solar system between Mars and Jupiter, and is largely composed of these rocky objects, and comets, which seem to be mostly icy material that come from way out beyond Neptune, and really haven't gone through necessarily planetary kinds of processes.
[00:04:05] Host: The reason they're going to an asteroid is because they are ancient objects that in a way mirror what planets may have looked like, well before they became planets. If you could get a sample of these rocky materials, then you could learn a lot about our solar system, and maybe even the origins of life on Earth. I'm sure there are more than a few thousand asteroids out there. And in fact, NASA is counting the ones they can see. So far, the current known asteroid count is 1,044,729.
[00:04:35] Most of the asteroids are found orbiting our sun between Mars and Jupiter within the main asteroid belt. Many scientists believe that there are millions more just waiting to be found. So, with that being said, how did they find the right one for this mission?
[00:04:50] Dante: Bennu is a member of a population we call the Near-Earth Asteroids.
[00:04:54] Beau: That was discovered as a point of light moving against the sky. The, the fixed background of stars.
[00:05:01] Dante: Telescopes scanned the skies every night, and they're just looking for asteroids, especially asteroids that might pose an impact hazard to the earth. It was discovered as part of an early hazardous asteroid survey, and Bennu was kind of swept up in one of those surveys in September of 1999.
[00:05:19] Host: I don't know if I should be slightly terrified or grateful that telescopes scan the night skies for objects that could bring on the next extinction. I guess we could always recall that crew of famous actors from the movie Armageddon, who used their selfless and daring wit to save our planet. Kidding aside, there is a reason why they're looking at asteroids near Earth.
[00:05:39] Beau: We knew we had to look for something that was not too far from Earth, because it takes a lot of fuel to get to the asteroid, but we also had to bring a piece of it home. So that doubles the amount of fuel you might need.
[00:05:53] Dante: I would say Bennu, it's pretty rare when it comes to the Near-Earth object population. It's really accessible from the earth, it's one of what we call the lowest delta V targets. Delta V kind of describes how much energy you need from your rocket and your spacecraft to get to the asteroid. It's easier to get to Bennu than it is to the surface of the moon from an energetics perspective. And Bennu started rising to the top of the list as we went through all the criteria.
[00:06:19] Host: Now that they had found an asteroid close enough to pay a visit to, they had to determine if they had the technical ability to perform a mission like this. Remember, you first have to get out to the asteroid and orbit it, then study it as much as possible before you even attempt to take a sample.
[00:06:35] Dante: When we were selecting the target for the OSIRIS-REx mission, we were balancing engineering constraints and science desire. From the engineering side, we were building off of some very capable heritage Lockheed Martin spacecraft, in particular, the Maven mission, which was in development, which was a Mars orbiter, and the Juno mission, which launched right a- around the time that we were selected, which is a Jupiter orbiter. And so, we knew what kind of capabilities we thought the spacecraft was gonna have. And we kind of balanced that against the needs of the mission.
[00:07:04] Host: These missions that Dante is referring to are truly incredible, and in of itself deserve their own episode. However, for the sake of time, I'll boil them down to the nuts and bolts. These are Lockheed Martin designed and built spacecraft outfitted with state-of-the-art science instruments and cameras. Their mission was to orbit Mars and Jupiter studying the atmosphere and surface of these planets.
[00:07:28] Now for the OSIRIS-REx mission, that meant that we could get up and close and personal to Bennu and examine the asteroid surface in great detail. But at this point, it wasn't exactly clear how they would take a sample, because they still didn't know enough about the composition of the asteroid's surface, like how hard or how soft would that material be, or what would be the size of that material. However, they did know how to get a sample back to Earth.
[00:07:54] Dante: We needed to launch off the earth and rendezvous with the asteroid, spend a substantial amount of time there, a couple years, and then leave the asteroid and re-intercept the earth and drop off a return capsule. But all of those things meant that it had to be pretty similar to the Earth's orbit in terms of how far away from the sun it was, in particular how inclined it is, which is the angle between the Earth's orbit and the asteroid's orbit, because that inclination determines how fast that return capsule is coming into the Earth's atmosphere. And we were building off another Lockheed Martin heritage mission called the Stardust mission, which returned samples from a comet. And we were using that return capsule, especially its heat shield.
[00:08:34] Beau: So that's the part of the spacecraft that actually returns to Earth with the sample inside of it, the entire spacecraft does not actually come back to the surface of the earth, it's just the sample-return capsule itself.
[00:08:47] Dante: And that can only come in at a speed of 12 and a half kilometers per second, which is really fast. It's 28,000 miles per hour or so. And you had to stay at a low inclination, a low angle between the asteroid's orbit the Earth's orbit. So Bennu checked all of those boxes, the orbit looked really great.
[00:09:04] Host: Maybe this is a good time to take a little refresher on comets. Comets are like dirty snowballs comprised of frozen gas, rock and sand. When they come close to the sun, they start to glow as they spew out a bright tale of gas and dust. So, what does that have to do with Stardust and the orbits? Well, Stardust was another designed and built Lockheed Martin spacecraft and its mission was to fly behind a comet and collect the tiny particles that are spewed out in the tail. Stardust then had to send the sample back to earth in a return capsule.
[00:09:40] In 2006, the return capsule entered the Earth's atmosphere at an astonishing 28,600 miles per hour. That capsule is the fastest human made object ever to enter Earth's atmosphere. And some of you may be wondering why the return capsule is going so fast. I was wondering that myself and reached out to Beau after we had recorded.
[00:10:01] He explained to me that the minimum entry speed is the escape velocity of Earth. In other words, you can't come back to Earth any slower than the velocity needed to escape the influence of Earth's gravitational force. To break free from the Earth's gravity, you have to be traveling over 11 kilometers a second, or just over 25,000 miles an hour. That means at a minimum, the return capsule will be traveling at those speeds when it comes back to Earth. Now factor in the geometry of the spacecraft, heliocentric orbit and the geometry of the Earth's orbit, and you get the extra speed on reentry. Don't ask me how they figured that out, it probably involves some complex mass solutions.
[00:10:38] But at those speeds, you can imagine how important it is to have the trajectory just right, and to have the capsule strong enough to not only survive, but to keep the sample in pristine condition. With the Stardust mission in the history books, now they can send a pristine sample of an asteroid back to Earth. The last major problem left to solve is how do you retrieve a sample from Bennu’s surface? It will take a combination of engineering innovation and scientific research to solve the problem.
[00:11:06] Understanding the composition of Bennu would not only inform how Lockheed Martin would build the sample device, but it would also begin to determine, from a scientific perspective, if Bennu was the right asteroid to go to at all.
[00:11:19] Dante: Because it comes close to the earth in a regular six-year cadence, every sixth year, Bennu and the earth are close to each other in the solar system, there was a lot of opportunity for telescopic characterization of this asteroid. There's a radio telescope in Puerto Rico called Arecibo. And Arecibo was able to image, Denny read astonishing resolution about seven and a half meters on the surface. We were able to build up a shape and model of the asteroid.
[00:11:46] Beau: We were able to get radar observations of Bennu. And so, we could actually get a size and a rotation rate.
[00:11:52] Dante: And it's relatively large, it's about 500 meters in diameter. So there's not a lot of asteroids that are that accessible, and that are as large as Bennu. Some of them are tiny, like tens of meters in diameter. And so, they're really, really small, literally boulders flying through space. It's got this amazing spinning top shape, its rotation period, 4.3 hours.
[00:12:14] Beau: It's really useful to know what the rotation rate is, is it rotating very, very slowly, or is it rotating extremely rapidly. And both of those circumstances have very different operational consequences.
[00:12:27] Dante: It came back in 2005. Again, very close more radar data, more telescope data. And then it was close to the earth in 2011, and we had a third campaign to characterize it astronomically, again with Arecibo. So, we knew a lot about this asteroid. We actually were able to measure its density, which was in very cutting-edge astronomical measurement at the time. I'm using a combination of the radio telescope and infrared astronomy using the Spitzer Space Telescope, which is another mission that Lockheed Martin manages there, the infrared telescope. We were able to figure out, based on those pieces of information, how dense the asteroid was.
[00:13:03] It was a really, really low density, which got us excited, because that meant water, carbon, the kinds of things we're looking for would be contributing to a low density. And we knew thermally from that Spitzer data that it had what we call low thermal inertia. And that's very important, because thermal inertia is how fast a surface heats up and cools off. So, if something gets really hot and really cold quickly, it would have a low thermal inertia, changes very easily. And if something takes a long time to heat up and a long time to cool off, then it's got a very high thermal inertia.
[00:13:35] Bennu has a very low thermal inertia. And we measured that from the space based infrared telescope work. And, and we thought that that meant that the surface was really sandy and fine grained because those are the kinds of surfaces that usually display those kinds of properties.
[00:13:50] Host: Let's take a quick detour and talk about the two telescopes mentioned. They played an important role in space history and are no longer operational today. The Spitzer Space Telescope designed and built by Lockheed Martin was an infrared telescope, launched in 2003, and eventually retired in 2020. It was the first telescope to see light from a planet outside of our solar system. Spitzer also made important discoveries about comets, stars, exoplanets and distant galaxies. The other telescope the team used was the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. It was a 57-year-old icon of space history featured in movies such as GoldenEye and Contact. It was a colossal radio telescope, observing everything from asteroids to radio waves from distant galaxies since 1963.
[00:14:39] The Arecibo Observatory cemented its place in history dramatically and heartbreakingly when its massive cable snapped, sending the suspended platform sailing into its dish below, sealing its fate forever. However, while operational, these telescopes gave the science team critical data about Bennu, for one, they learned how big it was. Imagine standing on Fifth Avenue in New York City, in front of you is the Empire State Building towering into the sky 1453 feet above you.
[00:15:13] Now, if you placed Bennu next to that building, it would be taller by 222 feet. And if you were standing on that street, Bennu would stretch out across five city blocks. It's definitely big enough for a spacecraft to briefly touch the surface and take a sample. They knew its rotation period 4.3 hours making a sample maneuver possible. Bennu's density showed promising signs for a carbon rich environment, which met some of their scientific objectives. Lastly, Bennu's surface displayed low thermal inertia properties meaning that it could have a fine rocky or even sandy surface.
[00:15:50] The last detail is essential because it helps solve the final engineering detail. How do you take a sample from the asteroid surface? Bennu was not only in the vacuum of space, but it also has microgravity conditions that add to the challenge of obtaining a sample. With that in mind, let's talk with the engineer from Lockheed Martin who can walk us through how the sample device was designed to overcome those challenges.
00:16:13] Sandy: My name is Sandy Freund, and I am the Lockheed Martin OSIRIS-REx mission ops manager. So, I've actually been with the program for seven years now working development and design of the spacecraft and then followed it into mission operations. So now I help lead the team through all the cool things that we get to do on this mission.
[00:16:34] So we've got our TAGSAM, which is our Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism. So that's new technology that was developed here at Lockheed Martin, and the great story is it was developed by an engineer many years ago, using a plastic cup on his gravel driveway and an air compressor trying to figure out, "Hey, could this work?" It turns out that it's a great technology should you want to go ahead and collect a sample from an asteroid.
[00:16:59] So the TAGSAM head, and we often describe as a reverse vacuum cleaner in that once it makes contact with the surface of the asteroid, that triggers the release of the nitrogen gas bottle that we'd carried onboard, and we had three of those bottles for three tag attempts. So that would stir up the surface regolith and cause it to float into the TAGSAM head and become entrained before the spacecraft backed away. And that held our sample in nice and secure, so that we could get it stowed in the sample-return capsule.
[00:17:33] Beau: So, this is something that Lockheed Martin started developing all the way back in 2004. And that we continued to evolve and mature until OSIRIS-REx was ultimately selected as a mission in 2011. And nobody had ever come up with a device like that before for small body sampling.
[00:17:51] Host: It was a simple experiment. But oftentimes, it's the simplest ideas that turn into the best solutions. This Lockheed Martin engineer wanted to see if it was possible to collect little pieces of dirt and rocks from his driveway using a plastic cup with compressed air. And that little experiment led to the development of the TAGSAM device. This new TAGSAM device was the solution to the last major engineering challenge they had to solve to make this mission possible. However, from a scientific perspective, they still had to determine if Bennu would meet their criteria for their final selection.
[00:18:26] Beau: The selection of Bennu as a target was a combination of scientific interests. So we wanted to go to one of these objects that we think was carbon rich.
[00:18:36] Dante: Bennu was distinct from a lot of the asteroids that met our orbital criteria, and that it was really, really dark.
[00:18:42] Beau: There were some observatories that were able to acquire color data and spectral data on Bennu. They can provide some clues about what the composition of Bennu might be like.
[00:18:54] Dante: Its albedo is four and a half percent, which means it only reflects four and a half percent of the sunlight, and it absorbs 95 and a half percent, it's darker than an asphalt parking lot.
[00:19:04] Beau: In fact, Bennu turned out to be low reflectivity. And we know that low reflectivity objects tend to be carbon rich.
[00:19:12] Dante: And then Bennu, not only has the carbon rich chemistry that we hoped it would when we were selecting it, but it also has a lot of water. That surprises a lot of people. But I'm not talking about rivers and lakes and oceans on the surface of the asteroid. I'm talking about water in the minerals, particularly clay minerals, which hold water inside their crystal structure.
[00:19:32] Beau: We think of Bennu as a time capsule, because unlike Earth, the heating and the processing of the material that comprises Bennu that stopped hundreds of millions of years ago and probably billions of years ago. And we're reaching back in time and we're pulling material into the present that hasn't gone through all of that very vigorous processing that's happened on Earth.
[00:19:58] Dante: I think that makes Bennu incredibly rare, it's very accessible from the earth, and it's very rich in water and carbon. It really was the best target in the solar system for our mission. And so, when the engineers were happy with the orbit, the scientists were happy with the chemistry and Bennu won the selection for the target of our mission.
[00:20:16] Host: A carbon rich composition is the last piece of the puzzle. They have the engineering capability, and now they have the right asteroid with a granular surface that is rich in carbon. Let's now dive into the why behind the science driving this mission. What is it that they are hoping to discover and learn that makes a mission worth all this effort? I'm sure there are many great reasons why they want to go to Bennu, and I cobbled together five significant reasons. The first being Bennu contains water really, really old water.
[00:20:48] Dante: Our science is driven by understanding that Bennu is an ancient object. It's over four and a half billion years old, and its materials record the formation of our solar system. So, they are literally the first materials that formed as planets were growing in what we call the proto-planetary disk, this big disk of gas and dust that our solar system accumulated inside of. And so, we particularly want to know why is Earth a habitable planet. And we think habitability is really related to the water and the fact that we have oceans and rivers and rain, and all these amazing environments that are available for hosting life. So, I want to understand where did the water come from?
[00:21:30] Beau: Two common theories are that Earth got a lot of its water from material that was resident in approximately the same distance from the Sun. And another theory is that a lot of the water that now forms the Earth's oceans got delivered by comets that were from the outer solar system. So, we're hoping that material from Bennu can help answer that question.
[00:21:53] Host: The amount of water we have on earth is one of the main reasons we have such an abundant amount of life. If water molecules are found within the composition of Bennu, it may help explain how we got all of our water. And that discovery will be an important piece to solving the puzzle of how life started on this planet. It may also help us better understand if other planets may have been habitable at one time, or, even help us look for the other types of worlds that may be able to host life. The next major building block for life is carbon. And carbon is our second scientific why for this mission.
[00:22:30] Dante: And then we also want to know well, even though you're habitable, how does the origin of life get started?
[00:22:34] Beau: The other interesting thing about Bennu is that it's a part of a class of asteroids that we think is what we call organic rich or that it has, uh, a lot of carbon in it, or more carbon than other asteroids. And of course, you and I and all other living things on this planet use carbon as a fundamental building block for making life.
[00:22:57] Dante: And we're really interested in how that happened on Earth. But by understanding if Bennu played a role, I would say objects like Bennu played a role in that happening on Earth. Those are, are all over the solar system. So that means that Mars may have been habitable and had the seeds of life and Europa and Titan. So, we really want to piece together that whole early history of our solar system to try to understand how the origin of life occurred here and did it occur anywhere else in our solar system?
[00:23:23] Host: The third scientific why is more about understanding the composition and structure of the material collected. The great thing about Bennu is that it's a time capsule from when our Earth was created over 4.5 billion years ago. And the vacuum of space has kept it in pristine condition. This means studying material from Bennu would be like a time machine taking you back 4.5 billion years to when the earliest formations of the earth were taking place.
[00:23:50] Beau: Well, we're hoping to learn what that original source material for the earth looked like, the very specific nature of its composition. We're also hoping to do a lot of studies with regards to even just simple things like mechanical properties, how strong is the material? What's the sound speed of the material? These things seem very basic, but they inform our understanding of the mechanics of how these things got put together and how they interacted. We think that the earth formed, essentially by collisions. So, you have things heading into one another and slowly accreting into a larger object over time.
[00:24:31] And that process of accretion and that process of colliding, that's a very mechanical process. And how fast you accrete versus how fast you rode a material away, all of that's actually very sensitive to the very specific mechanical properties of the material. The interior of the Earth is very hot, it's by very high pressures. And that temperature and that pressure over time has changed the original ingredients of the earth to what we see today.
[00:25:02] And so by returning material from Bennu, we're sort of bypassing the hot oven that is the earth, and we're getting some of those ingredients, um, as they were much closer to their original state in the early solar system. You know, on the one hand, there are these very important questions that we want to address about composition, and there are also these visceral mechanical aspects of the sample that we want to investigate that can also help us understand just really, what was happening to these things as they smashed around and, and came to the early Earth the, the proto-Earth?
[00:25:38] Host: Beau is referring to a theory of how we think material from the early solar system came together to form the earth. The basic idea is that around 5 billion years ago, there was an enormous cloud of gas and dust known as the solar nebula. Over time, this Nebula began to collapse in on itself, and as it did, it began to spin faster and faster till eventually our sun was born. Because this Nebula was rotating, it made a disk shape of gas and dust that rotated around our sun. All these particles and gases began to collide and collect a building mass. These materials grew as they smashed into each other. Soon, it began to take shape and form proto-planets and then other planets with moons.
[00:26:23] Bennu was one of these ancient materials that grew, but never smashed into enough objects to become a moon or a planet. Okay, let's jump over to number four of our scientific whys for this mission, resource extraction. OSIRIS-REx isn't doing any mining, but it's working out some of the technology and discoveries needed to make missions like that possible.
[00:26:44] Dante: We have a couple of other science objectives that kind of look forward. I mentioned that Bennu is very accessible from the earth. That has two implications. First, the good news is that it's going to be accessible for economic resource extraction. So I think we'll see places like Bennu and probably Bennu itself becoming sites of mining operations in the future. And we're like the pathfinder for that program.
[00:27:06] Host: The last point that Dante mentioned about using asteroids for resource extraction is increasingly becoming a topic of discussion in the science community. OSIRIS-REx isn't doing any mining, but it's working out some of the technology needed to perform those types of missions. Asteroids aren't just ice and rock. They're also made up of iron, nickel, gold, platinum, and other metals which are limited on Earth. In fact, scientists estimate that one metallic asteroid called 16 Psyche is so resource rich that it's estimated to be worth 70,000 times the global economy all on its own.
[00:27:40] But before you go rushing off to the asteroid belt with your spacesuit and pickaxe, keep in mind that these resources are most valuable to us if they stay in space. See, our current model for building space infrastructure is incredibly inefficient and costly. It's like building a dam in Washington State and then shipping all the pieces to India to be assembled. Wouldn't it make more sense to build the dam at the location? In the same way, wouldn't it make more sense if we could build our space infrastructure in space? And that's where asteroid mining comes in.
[00:28:13] In the future, we could see an asteroid mining industry taking shape. Beginning with increased sample-return missions, scoping out potential targets for collection. Then, spacecraft could extract resources from asteroids to support colonies living on the moon or even Mars. This capability will be increasingly vital as we begin to colonize beyond Earth, where it saves us years and millions of dollars to ship materials. Let's transition to our next why behind the science that is a bit more foreboding.
[00:28:43] Dante: And then the bad news is because it comes so close to the earth, it has a chance of hitting the earth. And it's actually one of the most likely asteroids to hit the Earth, the risk is still low and it's far in the future, 150 years in the future. But nevertheless, and I think we as a species need to be out there, assessing the risk and then developing plans to mitigate the risk because it would be a huge natural disaster if Bennu or something like it were to strike the surface of our planet.
[00:29:09] Host: So, it looks like the movie Armageddon may get a reboot and in 150 years, and I for one I'm grateful that our science and engineering community is making the efforts to learn more about these objects whizzing by us. With this being our last scientific why, we are ready to go on this mission, well, after it's been awarded. You see it takes years of research to establish a proposal, and then that proposal has to compete with others before NASA selects the winner for it to become a mission. Beau and Dante and many others spend years of their lives researching and developing the OSIRIS-REx sample-return mission to Bennu. And now, it was time to submit it for selection.
[00:29:48] Beau: So, I'm a part of a group called Advanced Programs and the Advanced Programs group interacts with NASA agencies and universities and other companies around the country, to put together new mission proposals, and that's actually how OSIRIS-REx got started, it was a proposal before it became an actual mission.
[00:30:08] Dante: OSIRIS-REx is in NASA's New Frontiers program. So that's like a medium class to large class scale of missions dedicated to exploring the solar system. And they're relatively expensive on the order of a billion dollars total. So, they're not that common, you get one if you're lucky, every five years or so NASA decide to fly a mission of this class. And then the priorities for NASA are established by the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council. This is a group of people that advise the U.S. government on science priorities. And they talk to the entire community, science community around the world that's interested in solar system exploration, and they gather all these inputs, and then they make a recommendation to the agency. And they usually give them multiple concepts.
[00:30:55] NASA says, "Okay, we're going to open up a competition, one team is going to win, and your mission is going to fly somewhere in the solar system and the other teams are not." I like to compare it to the NCAA basketball tournament, because NASA puts out what they call an announcement of opportunity. "New Frontiers 3 is available, teams are welcome to submit their bids." And it's on the order of a couple dozen teams that usually go after this opportunity, because it's obviously quite important and prestigious.
[00:31:24] We made it to the championship game, the first thing NASA does is select a few of the best ones to go into advanced study. And they give you some money to do that. Otherwise, it's up to your partners to fund the program after that point. And then we had two other missions that we were competing about, there was a lander going to the surface of Venus, and a sample-return mission going to the moon. And so, it was gonna be one of those three, and OSIRIS-REx was the team that won and we were selected to fly in 2011.
[00:31:53] Host: The celebration for winning the bid would have to be short lived, because now the hard work would begin. They had to assemble science and engineering teams across several organizations to design and build OSIRIS-REx.
[00:32:05] Dante: It was like, "Okay, we won, we said all these things, we promised all these things, now comes the hard work of delivering on all of those promises."
[00:32:13] Beau: Designing a mission is a very collaborative process between the engineering and the science. And the decision making primarily is focused on the science. So, the priority is making sure that the mission can achieve the science objectives, because that's ultimately what NASA is funding the mission to do, right? They're funding specific sets of science objectives. So, at the end of the day, there is this practical set of considerations that come into play that inform the design of the spacecraft.
[00:32:45] Dante: The scientists and the engineers really need to communicate. And this was probably one of my most important jobs. I, I would listen to the science team, and I would say, "Okay, this is what you want to do?" And then I would talk to the engineers, and I would translate it into requirements language. It's just like, "Okay, you know, the team wants to measure the following things or wants to collect the following sample, this is how we're gonna use it to design the spacecraft." So, I got to be really heavily involved in a lot of requirements, development activity, and representing the science to the engineering team.
[00:33:15] Beau: The first handshake, I guess, between the science objectives to the picking a target, is then putting together a trajectory, and then that trajectory starts to set the scale of the rest of the spacecraft. So how much fuel do you need? What size solar arrays do you need? And what does your communication systems look like?
[00:33:33] The other major piece that comes into play are the science instruments themselves. So, what kind of science instruments are you carrying? What kind of observations do they need to take? And under what conditions do they need to take these observations? And once you have those things in play, then a lot of the spacecraft starts to fall into place around those considerations.
[00:33:54] Dante: And then once the design is locked down, you go into the build phase. And that was really fun. So, you start to see the hardware is coming in from all over the place, the instruments are coming in, the spacecraft structure is coming together and you start to see your dream become a reality. And I actually spent a lot of time with the technical team at Lockheed Martin during assembly of the spacecraft. It was probably one of my favorite periods because I literally got to see the machine being built, I was treated very nicely, I would go down on the floor into the cleanroom and talk to the team, answer science questions, so that they do what the spacecraft was supposed to do, and then ultimately, it's done and you fly it to Florida and you get ready to launch it onto the rocket and begin that amazing journey to the asteroid and back.
[00:34:37] Host: OSIRIS-REx was assembled at the Lockheed Martin facility near Denver, Colorado. These engineers created new technologies and used legacy innovations to overcome the challenges of the mission. On May 20th of 2016, it was carefully loaded on a US Air Force C-17, cargo aircraft at Buckley Space Force Base in Colorado. It then flew to NASA Shuttle Landing Facility in Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where OSIRIS-REx would make the final preparations for its ride to space and set the launch a few months later on September 8th.
[00:35:09] OSIRIS-REx is rather remarkable, because it will be NASA's first spacecraft to fly an asteroid sample-return mission.
[00:35:16] Dante: Well, I was really proud of the spacecraft when it was up on the rocket because I knew it was ready to go, it was ready to do the job that we built it to go on this journey. And it wanted to go, it had that plucky kind of attitude like, "Yeah, put me in coach, I'm ready." So, we were all excited for OSIRIS-REx to begin the journey to the asteroid. And, and we worried about the launch, of course, because it's full of explosives, and you don't want anything anomalous to go on, but I trusted the team, we did launch rockets pretty regularly, and I thought this is going to be one of the lower risk activities.
[00:35:47] But overall, the team at the United Launch Alliance and the spacecraft team from Lockheed Martin, they were so good and so professional, and I, I watched everything as it played out, and I never had any concerns about anybody and their capabilities or their commitment to mission success. So, in the end, it's like, I've done everything I can do, this team has done everything they can do, and it went perfectly.
[00:36:15] When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an explorer, learn things and see things that nobody had ever seen before. And Bennu was a great opportunity to do that. So, I was just most excited to see something nobody had ever seen before, and to be the first person or part of the group of people that were the first ones to really lay eyes on it and analyze it, study it in great detail, a whole new world for us to just get excited about and interested in.
[00:36:42] Host: Not only would Dante get that chance, but team spanning across organizations such as NASA, the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin would set out to see and do something that has never been done like this before. In part two of this series, we look at what it was like to be on that mission. It definitely was not easy by any means. And Bennu proved to be full of surprises and challenges that the teams would have to overcome if they were going to successfully retrieve a sample from Bennu.
[00:37:14] Dante: When we first saw the surface of the asteroid, we were struck by how rugged and rough it was.
[00:37:21] Beau: One thing that we did not expect, we saw these particles being ejected from the surface, and it caused a scramble for the mission, we had to figure out whether or not these were gonna be a risk to the spacecraft, or it was gonna still be safe to orbit Bennu?.
[00:37:38] Sandy: We did have a very large boulder on the edge of that site that we named Mount Doom. We passed that 25-meter mark on tag day and the team got really quiet and I think that's when most people started to get nervous.
[00:37:55] Host: We end today's show with our flash forward segment that takes a deeper look at the future of space exploration. Beau, thanks for joining us today on Space Makers to discuss the future of space and what it looks like for the miniaturization of spacecraft. The first question I wanted to ask was in the future, how do you see spacecraft like OSIRIS-REx evolving?
[00:38:20] Beau: First, thank you for the opportunity to participate. This is a great exercise to think about what might be, based on where we are. Now, to the specific point of OSIRIS-REx and sample-return in 50 years from now there are so many exciting directions that space travel is taking and how that could affect sample-return. One really exciting direction is the SmallSat and CubeSat technology. And space exploration ever since it started, decades ago, has just been a race to make things smaller and lighter, because it's so expensive to build very large launch vehicles and send them off the surface of the earth. And SmallSats and CubeSats take that idea and just run with it away faster than any advance has happened in space exploration in literally the past several decades.
[00:39:12] And rather than sending a spacecraft like OSIRIS-REx, which is the size of a large passenger van or something like that, when everything is fully deployed, and instead you replace it with something the size of a carry-on suitcase, you could get to some very interesting locales, even on the surface of an asteroid or a comet that you couldn't have maneuvered to before just because your spacecraft was so big.
[00:39:36] Comet CG is an object that was visited by the Rosetta mission, which is something that the European Space Agency designed and flew several years ago. And it's this fascinating bioload comet with all sorts of crazy features all over its surface. And one of the features it has are these sinkholes in the ground. They're not craters, but they're literally like columns or cavities that kind of sink into the subsurface of a comet. And, so you can imagine, if you've got a cube sized satellite, or a small satellite that can do a sample collection event, it could actually fly into one of these holes and grab material from the subsurface or deep subsurface of the comet, and bring that back, rather than just collecting material from the surface.
[00:40:25] Host: Beau, what do you see would be some of the practical advantages from spacecraft or satellites getting smaller?
[00:40:32] Beau: There's a real knock-on effect, where if you can miniaturize the size of a component, and you can minimize the amount of power it draws, the amount of solar arrays you also need, shrinks. The whole scale of the spacecraft really drops by quite a bit. And so, the mass drops by quite a bit. And now you need way less propulsion. And so, you're able to send a small spacecraft to orbit Mars, or you're able to send a small spacecraft, even to potentially the outer planets with way less propulsion than you would need. So, if you reduce the power it needs, and if you'd reduce its mass, those two things go way down. And it makes it a lot easier for small spacecraft to go independently across the solar system rather than being dependent upon larger things, getting them to those destinations.
[00:41:22] Host: So, I'm curious to know, how will the miniaturization of spacecraft unlock new possibilities in the future?
[00:41:28] Beau: One of the other interesting things that could happen is right now when we send a spacecraft to a location, we send a spacecraft. But oftentimes there are time variable, or there are spatially variable measurements you want to make or both, there is something that is changing in the time domain and the spatial domain. Weather is an example of this on Earth. The weather is not the same from day-to-day at the same spot, and weather is also different across geographic locations. Weather monitoring systems of Earth can't really depend upon a single satellite, you have to have an ensemble of satellites that are measuring what's happening on Earth, in space, and in time, and by in space, I mean, dimensionally in 3D space, uh, not necessarily in, in the broader space.
[00:42:18] So you can imagine doing something like that with planetary science missions. There's a lot of just really phenomenal physics that's happening in the magnetospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, for example, or the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. And both of those are variable in space and time domains. And so having a single spacecraft orbiting those systems, you're only sampling one point in space at a given point in time. But if you have multiple spacecraft there simultaneously, now you're actually able to measure this three-dimensional structure in much greater detail. One of the things we could see in the future are suites of satellites or fleets of satellites, that are a science investigation, rather than just a single satellite.
[00:43:04] Host: I would imagine with spacecraft getting smaller, it'd be easier to get it out into space, can you talk to some of those benefits?
[00:43:11] Beau: A huge benefit of having a small satellite versus a big satellite is the propulsion question. And it's true not only for when the spacecraft is in space, but it's also true for launch vehicles as well. The bigger your spacecraft, the bigger the launch vehicle you need to get it off the surface of the earth. And if your spacecraft is a hundred times less massive than some of these big spacecraft that we traditionally launch, then you need a launch vehicle that's a hundred times less capable. And you could imagine doing planetary launches with very small rockets, that would also really open up the aperture for the number of missions, how frequently you could launch missions, it would be revolutionary.
[00:43:56] You know, one of the things that is also unique to planetary missions, relative to Earth orbiting missions is that planetary missions have very specific launch windows. But you know, if you've got a much smaller spacecraft, that opens up the aperture of the launch window, and maybe you could have much greater flexibility in when you launch given that you're just trying to launch a small, tiny little satellite.
[00:44:20] Host: In the future, do you see the possibility of these miniaturized spacecraft, essentially sharing rides with other spacecraft? So, you could have a small spacecraft sharing a ride with a larger spacecraft? Or you could have a rocket that's taking a bunch of small ones up? Or maybe because the spacecraft are so small, that you could have a smaller rocket taking a small spacecraft? Do you see that being a possibility? And what are the benefits do you see?
[00:44:46] Beau: That's right. Yeah, I, I think it's an all of the above outcome where the historical traditional one spacecraft per one launch vehicle is changing, and I think it's going to change in all sorts of ways in the future. If you're sending multiple spacecraft, they're all going to approximately the same location. Or if they're not going to the same location, then one of the spacecraft can redirect itself to wherever it needs to go. And that brings us back to the earlier part of the conversation, which is, if you have a super small spacecraft, and you can equip it with a propulsion system that can drive that small spacecraft. Now you can have a launch share opportunity where that small spacecraft doesn't necessarily need to be pointed exactly where it wants to go. The larger mission could be going in one direction, and then that small spacecraft could redirect itself and end up an entirely different destination.
[00:45:42] Host: Do you see sample-return missions, or how do you see sample-return missions supporting moon bases or people living in Mars?
[00:45:50] Beau: Yeah, absolutely. I think sample-return is a really important part of any element of human exploration. And one of the ways for example, that Mars sample-return could support human exploration of Mars is, you bring some sample back, maybe it has life forms, the chances of that are always very low. And then the chances of potential lifeforms being pathogens are dangerous to humans, we also think is extremely low, but you want to be careful. And you're able to study it exquisitely in the lab, and you're able to answer all of these human safety questions without jeopardizing human health for human exploration of Mars. And you could imagine that being true for any sort of destination that we go to, if you're able to collect the material and bring it back to earth and examine it in exquisite detail in the labs that we have here, then you'll be able to answer a lot of questions that are really important when you're designing and planning a human mission to that same destination.
[00:46:49] Host: When you think about the future of sample-return missions, is there anything there that you are really excited about seeing?
[00:46:56] Beau: There's so much exciting about sample-return missions. When you think about the number of places for which we have samples, it's actually a fairly small number. We have samples from a comet, which is Stardust, we have samples from the moon, of course, going back to the Apollo program, we have samples from the solar wind, which was Genesis, and soon we will have samples from Bennu from OSIRIS-REx. But that's just a handful of locales out of the literally thousands of locales in the solar system. And there are really first order scientific questions that are unanswered, and that will be very hard to answer without sample-return.
[00:47:34] One of the interesting things that we are pursuing with OSIRIS-REx and Bennu, is the nature of organics. And organics is a word that in the science realm basically refers to carbon bearing compounds or minerals. And we expect Bennu to be a relatively carbon rich object, not that Bennu ever had life, but it's places like Bennu that may have fed the early Earth then ultimately lead to life on Earth. What's the nature of carbon compounds on ocean worlds?
[00:48:06] If you go to Europa, Europa is this moon of Jupiter that's covered in a layer of ice. But we strongly suspect that underneath the ice, there's an ocean. And does that ocean have life? That would be a grea- that would be a great question to answer. Um, there's another moon of Saturn called Enceladus, that's also an ocean world. It's got a surface covered in ice. And actually coming out of the South Pole of Enceladus, there's actually this plume of material that's being continuously ejected from the moon. And we think that plume is sourced directly from the ocean.
[00:48:43] And so it would be great to do a sample-return from Enceladus, you might just be able to fly through the plumes. And in the process of collecting that material, maybe you're collecting biology, maybe you're collecting cells, and to be able to bring that back to earth and examine it and at least ask those kinds of questions and see if it's there or not, that's just incredible, really exciting stuff.
[00:49:10] Host: You've been listening to Dante Lauretta from the University of Arizona, Beau Bierhaus and Sandy Freund from Lockheed Martin, and they are space makers. Whether you're a software engineer, systems engineer, finance or HR professional, we need space makers like you to make these seemingly impossible missions a reality.
[00:49:29] Please visit this episode show notes to learn more about the OSIRIS-REx sample-return mission to Bennu, or the careers available at Lockheed Martin. If you enjoyed this show, please like and subscribe so others can find us and follow along for more out-of-this-world stories from Lockheed Martin Space headquartered in Littleton, Colorado. Join us on the next episode as we introduce you to more space makers.
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