From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.
On Episode 285, experts share the preparations and excitement ahead of the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample that is returning to Earth in September 2023. This episode was recorded on January 10, 2023.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 285, Return of the O-REx. I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, and astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight and more. Asteroids are a fascinating presence in our solar system. So much so, in fact, that NASA and other space agencies around the world have been observing and exploring them for decades to unravel their mysteries. We can learn quite a bit just from looking at them, but sometimes we have to take it a step further. Take the DART mission, for example, the Double Asteroid Redirect Test, where we intentionally crashed a spacecraft onto an asteroid to measure its change in orbit, as a planetary defense test mission. On its way back to Earth as we speak, is a mission called OSIRIS-REx, or Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer. This spacecraft launched in 2016 to rendezvous with an asteroid called Bennu in 2018. Bennu is a particularly interesting asteroid. I’m not a scientist here, but it has something to do with potentially unlocking the secrets of origins of life in the universe as we know it…or something, I don’t know; doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but there are a few scientists around the world that think that this is a pretty important thing. Not only is Bennu itself pretty interesting, but the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft didn’t come to an explosive end like DART. No, this spacecraft had a more gentle arrival at this particular asteroid, so it can take pieces of the asteroid with it on a trip back to Earth. With actual samples of the asteroid in tow, there are seemingly endless ways that scientists can use powerful earthbound instruments to help humanity uncover the secrets of the universe. OSIRIS-REx is not scheduled to return to Earth until September of this year, 2023, but as you might expect there’s a ton that’s happening behind the scenes in anxious anticipation of this spacecraft’s return. To help us understand more about this mission, the anticipated science and the preparations needed before O-REx touches down in the American desert, we have the mission’s deputy project manager, Mike Moreau, and the mission’s lead curator, Nicole Lunning. All right, let’s get to know this mission. Enjoy.
Host: Mike and Nicole, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast today.
Mike Moreau: I’m really excited to talk about OSIRIS-REx with you today.
Nicole Lunning: I’m happy to be here. Thanks. It’s great to be on this side of the microphone.
Host: Yeah, I love that we get to be in person for this one, too. Mike. It’s really lucky that you were here. What, you’re in Houston, but you’re based in Goddard [Space Flight Center], I believe. So what are, are you doing here this week?
Mike Moreau: Yeah, so I came out to meet with some of the folks at JSC that are supporting OSIRIS-REx.
Mike Moreau: They’re doing some of the analysis that we need to look at as the sample capsule comes back to Earth. We are doing all this public risk assessment and safety analysis to make sure that all the things that could go wrong, everything is, will still be safe. So.
Host: Yeah, it’s not like the work is beginning when OSIRIS-REx comes back and lands in the American desert, right? It’s, this has been a very ongoing thing.
Mike Moreau: Yeah. Well, of course the team was super-busy, you know, when we had the mission, arrived at Bennu and, and did all the early characterization, and then it kind of settled down for a little while as the spacecraft’s been making its way back to Earth. But now things are starting to pick up again as we get ready to get the sample back home this year.
Host: Definitely ramping up. Yeah, this is very exciting. I’m happy to have you both here today. A very exciting year. Bennu, OSIRIS-REx is coming back. Very cool samples. We’ve talked about OSIRIS-REx a couple of times on the podcast. Actually, funny enough, we, we talked to some experts before OSIRIS-REx reached Bennu, and then after it was coming back from Bennu. So, so this is, we’re still going to lead up to it, but we haven’t really dedicated like a full episode to it quite yet. So I wanted to go kind of deeper into what OSIRIS-REx is and why this mission is so important, why Bennu is so interesting. But first, let’s start with you because we have two, like, of all the people we could have picked to talk about this, I’m very excited to have you guys. Mike, if we’ll start with you, because you’ve been with OSIRIS-REx for quite some time and now you’re, you’re in a more, you, you got a bigger role with the mission. Can you tell us about sort of your journey that led you to where you are?
Mike Moreau: Sure. So I’ve been with the mission almost ten years now.
Mike Moreau: It takes a long time to do one of these planetary missions.
Mike Moreau: So I joined the project in 2013 as leading the navigation team, and we can talk more about this later, but there were a lot of interesting navigation challenges with this mission, going to a small body like Bennu and trying to navigate your spacecraft all the way down to the surface. So…
Mike Moreau:…that was an exciting challenge. Did that for several years and, and after the spacecraft launched, then I moved into a role on the project management team. So I’m the deputy project manager at Goddard in an organization called Space Science Mission Operations, where we operate a bunch of NASA spacecraft and, OSIRIS-REx is one of them. So I focus on OSIRIS-REx, and now as we’re getting ready for the sample to return home, I’m going to be the recovery manager for NASA. So I’m working with our partners at Lockheed Martin, and we had some of our colleagues in the Department of Defense and then Johnson Space Center to do everything we need to do to prepare for the sample to come home. So.
Host: Your job sort of switches as the mission goes on. You get new titles as there is, you get to different phases. That’s cool.
Mike Moreau: Yeah. It’s been interesting. Yeah. And it’s nice to be here at JSC. I spent a lot of time, maybe ten years or so ago, working Constellation program and doing some human spaceflight support. So it’s been great to walk around the halls here and, and meet with some of my colleagues that I haven’t seen in quite a while.
Host: Yeah. But familiar. Well, welcome back. It’s good to have you. This particular role, the deputy project manager, what, what is, is sort of your, the main things that you look over now?
Mike Moreau: Well, we have, there’s, there’s several major partners on the team. The folks that are operating the spacecraft are at Lockheed Martin in Denver. And then there’s a small team called KinetX that does the navigation in conjunction with our Goddard folks. And of course, the science team is led by the University of Arizona. So as the mission management at Goddard Space Flight Center, we coordinate across all of these groups, we make sure that they’re getting the funding they need to do the work and planning all of the work. As we get ready for sample recovery there’s some new team members that come, come into play. Nicole’s part of our curation team here at Johnson Space Center, and they’re preparing to receive the samples. And as I mentioned, we’re working with both the Air Force and the Army because the sample comes back to this military base in Utah called the Utah Test and Training Range, and so they are going to help us with all logistics of the recovery of the sample.
Host: So you’re seeing a lot more of the mission than, you said you started ten years ago and I know you were in navigation mostly, but now, you get to touch all these really cool pieces. You get, probably a much wider perspective in this role.
Mike Moreau: Yeah, I really do get to see the whole mission and, and work with, with all the partners, and it allows me to, to talk to people in the public about the mission, and that’s, I enjoy that…
Mike Moreau:…as well. So…
Host: Well, that’s what this is all about. Happy to have you here, Mike.
Mike Moreau: Thanks.
Host: All right. Nicole, deputy curation; that’s pretty cool. So, so what led you to, to this role for OSIRIS-REx?
Nicole Lunning: So, for me, I’m joining at a later stage than Mike. I joined in 2020, and I came from studying asteroids as a geologist and as a sample scientist, specifically through studying meteorites and a combination of also working in curation at the Smithsonian. So, when OSIRIS-REx was selected I, it was before I got my Ph.D., I was working in collection support at the Smithsonian, and I remember see, you know, hearing about it and being like, oh, it’s going to come back in 2023; where am I going to be now? And so, it’s so cool to be part of it.
Nicole Lunning: And in the process of studying meteorites, I, for my Ph.D., studied at, meteorites that we think are regolith samples from Vesta, so that intersected with the Dawn mission quite a bit. And then I had been applying to a bunch of our meteorites that we study, and that I’ve studied, come from Antarctica, and so I applied to be part of the field team member. And actually, just after I interviewed for this job and before I started it, I got to go to Antarctica as part of NASA’s field team that collects meteorites in Antarctica.
Host: So cool.
Nicole Lunning: So most of which are asteroid samples, but they haven’t been protected in the way we’re going to be able to protect this sample.
Host: OK. So it is like, seems like OSIRIS-REx has always had sort of a place in your heart, and you’ve taken these incremental steps. I’m sure, like Antarctica was like a pretty decent step to get you sort of where you are today as well, right?
Nicole Lunning: It definitely is, was great to be able to collect meteorites and really think about how the environment can affect them, right? They pass through Earth’s atmosphere and into Antarctica: it’s a dry desert, very low humidity, it’s really the best place a meteorite can fall from a scientific perspective, but there’s still a lot of terrestrial contamination, potential growth of things like sulfates on the meteorites, where our sample we’ll much better be able to constrain and know if we find some, something like a sulfite in a sample that we’ve had that whole chain of custody on, it’s very promising that it actually came from Bennu, rather than that sulfate growing in, in a terrestrial environment from a found meteorite.
Host: So safe to say in the scientific community, this sample that we’re going to be talking about today is extremely valuable.
Nicole Lunning: I would definitely say that, yes.
Host: [Laughter] Awesome. How was Antarctica, by the way? It sound, I mean, I think Antarctica and the first emotion that comes to mind for me is fear. [Laughter] But I wonder like, how it was for you?
Nicole Lunning: It was incredible. I, I loved it. I had wanted to go; I did talk to lots of other people who went, and I started out wearing the maximum quantity of clothes. So I was wearing like six layers of long underwear, two pairs of snow pants plus the “Big Red.” And then when I got too hot, I would take off clothes, which I definitely recommend that for people in the deep field in Antarctica. Don’t let yourself get cold. Just wear all the clothes. Just be a giant, you know, puff marshmallow person.
Host: [Laughter] Love it. OK. Well, I’m glad that, that it led you to this role. I definitely want to, we’re going to explore more about what we’re doing in terms of curation, what, what we’re doing to prepare for OSIRIS-Rex. But for our listeners, let’s sort of set some context. We keep bringing up these things, OSIRIS-REx and Bennu, these are sort of like the overall thing. Mike, I, I guess, we’ll pass back to you. Let’s start with the asteroid. Let’s start with Bennu for a bit. What, the, the mission was headed for this particular thing. What, what is this asteroid and why is it so interesting?
Mike Moreau: So near-Earth asteroid Bennu is about 500 meters in diameter, or about the height of the Empire State Building; seems like pretty big object, but it’s actually the smallest object that’s ever been orbited by a spacecraft before. And that made it an interesting target, because there’s a lot of operational challenge of doing that. But, but Bennu was picked for this mission for some very specific regions. It’s a carbonaceous asteroid. We believe that the material that it’s composed of is some of the earliest building blocks of the solar system. So by bringing that back to Earth and studying it, we can learn a lot about the early formation in the solar system. And, and Nicole probably has more to say about some of that. But it’s also an interesting target because it’s one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids that we know about. It’s a near-Earth asteroid, it’s in an orbit very similar to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun so it actually crosses the Earth’s orbit, and it has like a one in, one in 1700 chance of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century. So, it made it a very interesting target to study so we could characterize its orbit around the Sun better and have a better prediction of that potential hazard in, in the future. But finally, there’s very few asteroids that are both accessible, meaning we can get a spacecraft there, and also get it back to Earth. And we had to have that, you know, two-way journey in order to bring the sample back to Earth. And all of those things in terms of the size, its composition, what its orbit was, we had maybe five or six asteroids to pick from that, that were lining up with a, with the time we were doing the O-REx mission. And, and Bennu was the best choice among those. So…
Host: Wow. Were any of the other five carbonaceous?
Mike Moreau: I don’t know. Do you know the answer to that question, Nicole, were they all…
Nicole Lunning: I think they were, I think the, the mission because we wanted to look at the building blocks of life, prebiotic compounds and carbonaceous…
Host: And naturally that was…
Nicole Lunning:…are the, yeah, so I think that was one of the narrowing down.
Mike Moreau: An interesting point is that one of the other targets we were considering is the target of the Hyabusa2 mission, Ryugu, was one of the candidates. And it just because it’s in the same timeframe, and it was also just met a lot of those criteria.
Host: OK. Yeah. Think considering other missions too, that makes a lot of sense. I threw out the term carbonaceous because I think it’s a pretty important term, in terms of, Mike was talking about the building blocks of life, I think that’s a pretty important element to what makes Bennu so special. So what, so, you know, what is carbonaceous? Like, what, what is it that exactly we’re looking for that’s going to help us find these really important questions, search for these important questions?
Nicole Lunning: So for the carbonaceous aspect, the part of that carbon that we’re really interested in is, things that, you know, were carbon-based lifeforms, amino acids, things like that. So even though Bennu is a very inhospitable place for actual life, it’s a good way to preserve those building blocks of life because there isn’t anything that can survive there to eat those things and use them. And, and carbon is a really essential compound in all of, all of those elements. And where we don’t tend to see carbon in as much abundance in the non-carbonaceous chondrites and the asteroids we associate with them, as well, but it is the form of carbon. There can be, you don’t want something like a graphite, inorganic carbon, you want to ultimately find amino acid-bearing sample material and the carbonaceous chondrites are the best target for that because you tend not to have, or have very, very low abundances of the organic carbon compounds in other meteorite groups.
Host: Excellent. So sort of, sort of expanding on that in terms of, Mike was talking about maybe the origins of the universe, but it sounds like it could be the origins of life as we know it.
Nicole Lunning: Yeah. It definitely could be the building blocks of life in our solar system, either on Earth or potentially elsewhere.
Host: This is big. This is, this is very, very important questions. And OSIRIS-REx was the way to, was the mission, was the spacecraft to go to this very special asteroid. Mike, tell us about OSIRIS-REx, what makes this spacecraft and this mission so special?
Mike Moreau: Well, yeah. So the primary objective was, of the mission was to collect a sample from a near-Earth asteroid, return it to Earth, right? But in order to do that, we had to do a lot of other pieces of the mission, and OSIRIS-REx had the objective of characterizing this object in great detail in order to just understand the, the, the object and the context of the sample that we were collecting. Those very detailed observations, which are imagery and, and spectroscopy and, and, topography data, all of that is very useful because it can be a calibration point for the telescopic observations that we make of asteroids from the Earth. So by studying it up close, comparing Earth-based observations, we’re able to get like a truth marker for what we’re seeing from Earth-based telescopes and understand other objects that we’re seeing from the Earth better. So that’s an objective of the mission. But as I mentioned, because it’s a hazardous asteroid, we also wanted to track the orbit of Bennu very precisely by having our spacecraft orbiting Bennu for two years and all of the Deep Space Network tracking data from that, we were able to refine Bennu’s trajectory very precisely and, and update those potential hazard, hazardous impact calculations. And then, once we collected the sample, we studied the sample site in great detail to provide the context, you know, what is the composition of the material that’s there and how was the material laid out, and, and that provides context for the sample that’s collected. So all of those objectives formed the scientific objectives of the mission, then drove the observations that we collected and the orbits that we flew around to get these observations and eventually collect the sample. But that is OSIRIS-REx in, in, in total is all of those objectives.
Host: So, it sounds like a lot had to be loaded onto this spacecraft. You talked about a lot of different instruments, and then there’s this very delicate piece of actually grabbing something from, from the mission, from the asteroid itself. So in terms of the design of the spacecraft itself, the different components, what goes through the asteroid, what, what goes down and actually touches it, what comes home, what are the different pieces?
Mike Moreau: Yeah, and I should talk more about the spacecraft.
Mike Moreau: It’s essentially this robotic explorer.
Mike Moreau: It has a series of cameras. It has a lidar instrument, and, and other sensors that we use for navigation. But it also has some unique capabilities. It has a Sample Return Capsule, so that’s something about the size of a small dinner table that might sit through, three or four people around it, like a round table. That’s the only part of the spacecraft that’s entering the atmosphere. The spacecraft itself is the size of like a 15-passenger van or something like that, so it’s very large. And it has a large robotic arm on it that had the sample collection mechanism at the end. So it’s one of the important things about the mission is we don’t actually land on the surface and do operations on the surface of Bennu: we touch the surface, kind of like you would if you’re bouncing on a pogo stick. So we stick out the robotic arm on the spacecraft, it has the sample collection head at the end, and we did, we slowly descended to the surface and basically bounced off like, like a pogo stick and then fired our thrusters and backed away. And that contact of just ten to 15 seconds was enough to collect the sample.
Host: OK. Yeah. Very interesting design. Now, I’m, Nicole, I’m going to go to you for the actual kind of sample collection thing, but before that, you did mention OSIRIS-REx sort of orbited Bennu for a while to track its trajectory. What was it measuring? Was it just taking calculations of mostly navigation or was there some element of composition that, that could help in determining its trajectory? What, what, what was the important measurements there?
Mike Moreau: Well, I, from a navigation perspective, we had to first, when we first arrived at Bennu we had to learn what Bennu’s characteristics were, its shape and its mass, more precisely.
Mike Moreau: And so, the first kind of orbits we flew by and flyby as were just to kind of get to know Bennu, sense its gravity a little bit better and start to develop a model that we would use for navigation. And so the first few phases of the mission were really focused on that. We got a lot of good scientific data too, but it was about refining our ability to navigate. Then we got in close, we got into orbit, we started doing detailed flybys using that better navigational knowledge that we got. And that’s where we collected the detailed maps. We flew by to all kinds of different geometries, looking at Bennu with different solar illumination and thermal conditions, and built up these maps. And the, the point of doing that was to understand the surface well enough to know where could you go down and collect a sample, where were the good sample sites, where would they have sampleable material? But, you know, it also provides this vast volume of scientific analysis and all, there were all the science teams that were off studying that, those observations and learning as much as we could about the composition of Bennu just from the observations.
Host: I’m thinking about, you know, all that work to, to find just the right spot; Nicole, I’m thinking about it from a curation perspective and, and particularly the design of what, what was going to be grabbing this, this sample, because from your perspective, right, the, one of the first things you mentioned in terms of, you know, comparing with Antarctic meteorites is that the, they’re sort of like, I don’t know if contaminated is the right word but they’re not, they’re not pristine in nature. And one of the interesting things about Bennu is, is its pristine preservation of some of the earliest interesting parts of the universe. But what, what did you need to design in terms of the, the capsule, the, the hardware that actually keeps that pristine in space for a long time through the atmosphere into Earth atmosphere, right? That’s, that’s, there has to be very specific scientific requirements to, to make sure there’s not, I don’t know, an introduction of air or something. So, so what went into the design of making sure that this sample was truly pristine?
Nicole Lunning: So, and, and it does interface with, I’ll call out to everybody who was involved because it was before I was involved in the mission, but the sample is collected with pure nitrogen gas. So Earth’s atmosphere that we breathe is 80% nitrogen; it’s the other 20% that we really have to worry about — oxygen and humidity and carbon dioxide — altering the sample. So by collecting it with pure nitrogen gas, which then when the sample ultimately comes to Johnson Space Center we will be storing it, also, in a pure nitrogen environment. And that really gives us a lot of way to preserve it, for, upon collection then sealed inside the canister there is a filter that so when this Sample Return Capsule comes through Earth’s atmosphere that filter will protect the sample from humidity. And there’s a very tortuous path that oxygen can get to it but it, if we get the sample as quickly as we hope to, and we’re working with our colleagues in recovery at Lockheed Martin that we’ll collect the sample as quickly as possible and actually connect it basically to a nitrogen bottle here in Utah to maintain that nitrogen atmosphere and, and keep it from having any of the contact with Earth’s atmosphere that just always happens to meteorites no matter how rapidly you collect them.
Host: Oh, OK. OK. All right. So that’s, that’s interesting.
Mike Moreau: You know, like, Nicole, you’re, you’re, you’re alluding to the fact that there was a huge amount of work that was done just to keep the sample pristine.
Mike Moreau: And that went all the way back to when the spacecraft was being developed to make sure we weren’t using like tapes that would have adhesives that could be mistaken for organic materials in the sample. So there’s been this huge effort to keep all of the hardware that makes up the Sample Return Capsule pristine, and then Nicole’s talking about all the ways that in the processing of it we’re trying to make sure that there isn’t, aren’t any contaminants that are introduced. And, and the other thing I think it’s worth mentioning is the sample is, is going to be very unique because of all the characteristics we talked about. It’s very unique from the existing meteorite collection. So we can go and collect these meteorites in Antarctica, but a lot of the material that, that consists, that we think we collected at Bennu, is not the, generally the kind of thing that would survive entry through the atmosphere without being in this protective aeroshell enclosure. So, that makes the, the, the very unique nature of the sample.
Host: And I know, you know, you mentioned just the amount of planning ahead of time to think about stuff like that, but I know, even, even with all your downselect to actually pick Bennu and make that mission profile what it was, was challenging to get there. You mentioned Bennu is, it was, is small in size and, and that comes with navigation challenges. Mike, what were some of those challenges when, you know, by, by the time you, you get, you launch, you’re heading to the asteroid, but the challenges of actually sort of getting there and navigating the spacecraft the way that you want to?
Mike Moreau: Yeah. Well, this is something I really like to talk about because my background is as a navigator…
Mike Moreau:…and I worked in, earlier in my career like developing GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers that could be used in new regions and space. So when we got to the challenge of trying to figure out how to do this mission, it was, we were really doing a bunch of things that were pushing the envelope for deep space navigation. To give you an idea, Bennu is only 500 meters in diameter so the gravity is very small. You know, when we model spacecraft orbits, we also have to model things like the solar radiation pressure from the Sun, you know, so pushing the, the photons hitting the spacecraft are creating small accelerations. Normally these are really small forces, but at Bennu the, the force from gravity is almost the same as solar radiation pressure. So when we’re orbiting Bennu, we’re kind of doing this dance between, you know, to balance out these small forces and achieve the trajectories we wanted. What that meant is little perturbations that come from the spacecraft can really push the spacecraft around. So like if the thrusters fire, change the attitude, and it’s not balanced, that can be a large perturbation. Heating and cooling of the spacecraft surfaces is, are accelerations we were able to see in the data, we could see as a spacecraft slewed and surfaces heated and cooled, it would get small accelerations that would change the orbit of the spacecraft. So our navigation team had to develop all these really high fidelity models to be able to predict this behavior, and that was needed because when we’re doing these orbits we have to know where to point the cameras to observe Bennu, and you have to predict that ahead one to two to three days in the future to be able to plan those observations. And so there was this cycle of having to update the navigation and have the science plans fall along with those updates to be able to capture the images and the science data of Bennu. So, it was really great, and we had just an amazing navigation team of people kind of rising to the challenge to, to solve some of these problems and, and make the mission work. And it, and it really did work. We really achieved, you know, all the things we weren’t sure we were going to be able to do before we arrived, in general worked much better than we thought we would and, and really just enabled the mission to be a great success.
Host: Delicate was the word that was coming to mind for me. You know, it’s like you have all of these forces on top of gravity and, and just the little, like you were saying, just something else, a little bit of heat and a little bit of solar radiation, becomes such a large factor. And, and as you were saying, it seemed like, you, it was kind of like a rapid response team, the navigation team, right? Because you, you, you had, you put in your models, you put in what you thought the spacecraft was going to do, you looked at the data, see what it was actually doing, and then, was it as, as kind of rapid as I’m anticipating where you see some change and like, all right, we got to go change that, we got to go change that, because we have to think about, as you’re saying, when the instruments are facing Bennu, was it as rapid as you had anticipated?
Mike Moreau: Yeah. It was, really was kind of a rapid cadence…
Mike Moreau:…because what we had to do was, we, we had this, this cycle of, before a science observation or before a maneuver, we would record images, optical navigation images, downlink them to the ground through the Deep Space Network, process the revision to the trajectory based on that data, and then upload a new trajectory. And that would guide the new pointing to the observation. So this whole cycle took about 24 hours. It required Deep Space Network passes two days in a row to, to work, one to get your OpNav (optical navigation) images down, one to send the trajectory up. And so that process had to be repeated something like 150 times over the course of the mission to do all of the navigation and observations over the mission. So, so it was, you know, the people had to work and, and meet their deadlines in order to get that process closed in a 24-hour timeframe. Later on when we got to TAG (touch and go), we actually were able to incorporate some autonomy where the spacecraft to do some of this navigation techniques on its own, but for a majority of the mission we had to have the ground in the loop to do this. And so it was a highly orchestrated process.
Host: Fascinating. And I know the story of, you know, it’s the story of when it actually reached Bennu and the story of sample collection is, is fascinating of, in and of itself, because it was full of surprises, right? There was stuff about, it’s, this is the interesting thing about science and exploration is you, you can, you have a lot of models, you have a lot of ways of predicting what’s going to happen, and then you actually do it and it’s, you know, it’s surprising. What were some of the, some of the bigger surprises and curveballs…
Nicole Lunning: Curveballs. Yeah.
Host:…of, of, of the, this mission?
Mike Moreau: Well, the biggest one was in December of 2018 when we saw the first resolved pictures of Bennu, and we realized it was just incredibly covered in rocks. So we thought, based on our observations of similar asteroids, that there would be these kind of large areas or kind of like sandy beaches with lots of fine grain material, and we would be able to easily navigate down to the surface and pick this up with our sample collection mechanism. When we got there, there were, there was no place like that on Bennu. And to give you kind of an idea, we designed the spacecraft to be able to land with an accuracy of about 50 meters. So if you drew a circle on the surface that was 50 meters in diameter, we would be able to land somewhere in there using the navigation techniques that we had. The, the best TAG site that we found after we did the map of Bennu was about eight meters in diameter instead of 50. And this really just meant a totally, we would’ve to use a totally different approach for the navigation. So…
Host: You needed a bullseye.
Mike Moreau:…we started — and that was what we called it, we called it bullseye TAG initially. So how are we going to do the bullseye TAG? So, you know, some of the changes we made were to basically abandon, we had this really kind of simple lidar-based technique for, you know, measuring a range light, a light range to the surface, using that to update the navigation, we had to shift and adopt an optical navigation, vision processing-based technique to do the navigation that was much more precise. So this was a whole development that we undertook after we arrived at Bennu to change the flight software on the spacecraft to do this new method. So, it was really kind of an exciting pushup. And that was just one of the surprises we ran into.
Host: Yeah, the one that comes to mind for me is the actual composition of the asteroid itself. You would think like it’s just a floating rock, like a solid hard rock, but that really wasn’t the case.
Mike Moreau: Yeah. It’s, it’s really a rubble pile, right? And, and the density and the material on the surface is really, really low. So…
Host: So it’s kind of like, what, what was the analogy? You, it was like a ball pit, was…
Mike Moreau: Yeah, so when we actually did the TAG and we touched the surface, I mean, that was one of the biggest uncertainties we had: how would Bennu respond…
Mike Moreau:…when we touched the surface? And all of the assumptions we had, we were way on the far end of the spectrum that the surface exerted almost zero pressure against the, the spacecraft when it touched the surface. In fact we had an, we had an accelerometer trigger for firing the gas bottle that collects the sample, and we just barely hit that threshold the acceleration was so small. We, we basically understand now that if we had not, you know, the, the spacecraft touched the surface, fired this gas bottle, and then a few seconds later fired its thrusters to back away. If we hadn’t fired the thrusters, the spacecraft would’ve just kept descending into the surface. It, you know, just like it was landing in a ball pit that you were playing at the mall or something. But…
Mike Moreau:…so that, so what we took away from that, the scientific result is that this pit, the surface has very, very low cohesion. You know, I’ll think almost of these Styrofoam popcorn or something like that, you know, and as we, we touched the surface and, and pushed into that, there was no resistance. And then when we fired the gas bottle, we excavated this huge crater, about a half a meter deep and perhaps eight meters in, in the long axis. Tons of material that was moved by just this little gas bottle we fired to collect the sample.
Mike Moreau: So that’s, that’s very exciting. There’s a lot of other cool scientific results that the scientists were able to extract from the insights that we got when we touched the surface.
Host: Yeah. I’m, I’m thinking about the sample collection, Nicole, and, and this, Mike’s talking about this, this gas pressurization, right? And it sounds like you fire some gas to get the samples that you want. So what is it exactly that the scientific community was looking for? What, what is the sample, what’s inside the return capsule now, and how did that gas technique work?
Nicole Lunning: So the gas was to entrain the sample into the sampler head…
Nicole Lunning:…which is a little over a foot in diameter, just to give you a sense of the scales Mike’s talking about versus the areas they had to work with and the challenge they, they really got. And I also just want to take an opportunity to step back and, one of the things that’s really powerful about spacecraft exploration of asteroids is we see these kinds of things, right: this kind of texture, this rubble pile, the cohesion. We really can’t get that from telescopic observations or from studying the meteorites on Earth because, as Mike highlighted earlier, the meteorites that we have on the surface of Earth are things that could survive passage through the Earth’s atmosphere, so they already have a fair amount of cohesion not to fall apart and just melt into small pieces that are very difficult to recognize to make it to the Earth and have an actual rock that’s still an asteroid rock. But in getting, like the scientists wanted to have what Bennu was, though they recognized, the asteroid operations recognized, at least two main lithologies and a lot of smaller lithologies that was observable in Bennu. And so we’re hoping we’ll at least get those two main lithologies and we might get some other, so we might get a bunch of different types of rocks that have different histories, and that will be able to tell us a lot more about Bennu’s formation and the larger asteroids that it probably came from. But those are the kinds of things that we need the tools that we have on Earth — big labs, large pieces of equipment that you can’t really fly on a spacecraft, and the diversity of all the different types of instruments that we have on Earth. And that’s one of the really powerful things about a sample return mission.
Host: Yeah. And I definitely want to dive into that a little bit more when we talk about like, you know, what happens next. But, just really quickly, just for my own, just for my own knowledge, lith, lithology, you said, what, what is that?
Nicole Lunning: Oh, so it’s, it’s a word for, so litho is rock, so it’s different types of rocks.
Host: Different types of rocks; OK.
Nicole Lunning: Yeah. So it’s, the two main ones are, we think, carbonaceous chondrite-like, though they may not be like any carbonaceous chondrites we have on Earth, we’ll see when we actually get to study them more closely…
Nicole Lunning:…and then some of the other ones actually seem like they’re parts of different types of asteroids, non-carbonaceous chondrite-like asteroids.
Host: OK. And you’re just like, fingers crossed you have both.
Nicole Lunning: I mean, fingers crossed. I mean, the, picked a site, that’s a good, good candidate. And…
Host: So it’s very likely that you have both. OK. All right. There was one more interesting thing that you, that was like a surprise was these little, I think it was like particles that are coming off of Bennu; what was that about?
Mike Moreau: Yeah, so one of the other — just total blindsided us very early in the mission, just as we were getting ready to insert into orbit around Bennu — we, we noticed in the optical navigation images we, we use, we look for stars in those images, we take long exposures so we can see stars and use those to help orient the cameras for the navigation solution. We saw a lot of points of light in the images that were not stars. We even saw some streaking in, in the images. And so upon closer analysis we realized that Bennu was basically having these events that ejected little bits of material into space. So I told you already that the, the materials very loosely held together on the surface, right? So, we believe that it could be micrometeor impacts or thermal effects of thermal fracturing and material, but it was, there were events that were happening, you know, every few days that would cause, just like sprays of particles ejected from Bennu that we were able to observe with the spacecraft. So these are things that are just a few centimeters in size that were leaving the surface of Bennu. Some were entering into orbits around Bennu for a few days and then landing on the surface again. And so using these images that we took for OpNav, we made this amazing stop, scientific discovery about Bennu that has never been observed before. But it was also in part because we were so close to Bennu, and it was so small that we were close enough to see these things, because you can only see particles that are a couple centimeters across if you’re a couple kilometers away, which is what we were. So there was just a really great synergy there between the engineering that it took to fly the mission and enabled us to have this scientific discovery that was a big surprise.
Host: Wow. Absolutely fascinating. I, I, I’ve never gone into this much detail about, just OSIRIS-REx and the mission and, and being there, it’s, just sounds like a thrill. [Laughter] Like, it was just a very exciting mission. But, you know, I, I think part of the reason we’re here today is because it’s coming back and that’s a big thrill as well, particularly for the scientific community. And Mike, you said, you mentioned here because you’re already, you’re, you’re here in, at the Johnson Space Center because the planning is, is, is really picking up. A lot of people are getting really excited about the sample return. You guys want to make sure all your ducks are in a row. Nicole, I want to head to you for a second because in terms of planning, I think one of the, the thing that really jumps out at me for planning for OSIRIS’-REx, OSIRIS-REx’s return is all the facilities and the process of actually getting that sample to a facility, how you’re going to house it, how do you make sure you have like the right nitrogen and everything like that, so what are you doing on the curation side to make sure that everything’s in tip-top shape for when that super-precious sample comes back?
Nicole Lunning: So right now, and what we’ve been working on actually for the last couple years, is really being ready to make sure we first and foremost can protect the whole sample in our lab at Johnson Space Center. So a new lab was built, construction started on it in 2020 and finished in 2021. We’ve been monitoring the lab since then. And also, all of the equipment that we’re putting in the lab, we’ll have specialized gloveboxes that are specifically for handling the OSIRIS-REx sample and for taking apart actually the parts of the Sample Return Capsule that we’ll bring to Johnson Space Center immediately, the sample canister and that TAGSAM (touch and go sample acquisition mechanism) head, the collector that the sample was actually collected, we’ll take that apart inside of a glovebox because that’s the way we can protect it from Earth’s atmosphere. That glovebox will have only a pure dry nitrogen atmosphere, and then people working with their hands in, through very heavy rubber, rubber-ish gloves that are all contamination monitored. We get the same thing that Mike mentioned on the spacecraft side, we worry about all that same contamination stuff on our side, carefully vet everything that’s going to go in that lab, everything that might have contact with the sample will go through a thorough cleaning, autoclaving and/or baking-out to remove organics just like what happened with all of the spacecraft parts, to make sure that all of that work to protect the pristinity of the sample continues to pay off by us, you know, preserving it in the lab. And then, it will end up going to a bunch of scientists all over the world. And some of it will depend on what they need to do. There are scientists that absolutely need it to be maintained in a nitrogen atmosphere. There are others that the work they’re doing doesn’t necessarily need that as much, so it will really, really a case by case. And there’s things that we’ll actually be doing within our, you know, onsite at JSC where we have a specialized sealed container. We’ll take it, for instance, to XCT (x-ray computed tomography) scanner and CT (computerized tomography) it in a sealed container so it never leaves that dry nitrogen curation environment while that, that analysis is taking place. So that’s also what we’ve been working on is containers that we can do that stuff when that, both work with the instrumentations, you can still take the measurement, but also that protect the sample.
Host: Do you feel at this point that from a curation perspective, you guys are armed and ready for the return or you still have a couple of things?
Nicole Lunning: We are in a good position, but we still have things we’re working on.
Host: OK. Yeah.
Nicole Lunning: There’s still, you know, there’s still things that, our lab has some stuff in it, but we have a lot of equipment that’s going to be coming in the next couple of months. Those gloveboxes are one of them, which is a big, big thing.
Nicole Lunning: So we’ve been working really hard in the last couple of years to get all that stuff here. And right now it’s starting to show up and, and, and be ready and go through all our, the cleaning we have to do to be ready. So it is still a busy time…
Host: I bet.
Nicole Lunning:…but yeah.
Host: From, is it, is it your role that, that is also overseeing the research proposals and thinking about and making selections and how you’re going to transport them to different researchers, or…
Nicole Lunning: So, we have a role in it, but we’re not the only decision factor. So for the science team, there’s an intricate plan of, of analyses and that, to answer certain hypothesis, hypotheses, and then we’ll interface with the science team to make sure that we can get them the samples that we need. We always have, in curation, have this tension of we want to make sure we preserve some material for the future when there may be new instruments, things that can do stuff we can’t imagine now. But we also brought back this sample for it to be studied by scientists.
Nicole Lunning: And some of the ways you need, you can study it requires it to be destroyed, requires small parts of it to be exposed to Earth’s atmosphere before it gets destroyed, or just to do the measurement. And so having that balance, we will be working with the science team so they can achieve, address their hypotheses, but also, as for instance if we have two lithologies we’ll try to make sure that we’re preserving some of each lithology for the future. And so that will be the balance of letting their, their scientific questions have already been thoroughly vetted, this mission is a science-focus mission, that was how it was selected by NASA. And then later on we will have broader scientists who aren’t part of the science team be able to propose research they want to do, and that will be peer-reviewed by a board of other scientists which we will convene, so we’ll select people with different interests but they won’t be people who are NASA people. There will be some independence to review that science, but we’ll be part of that.
Mike Moreau: Yeah, and I want to add to what you’re saying, Nicole, that the Dante Lauretta, who’s the principal investigator for the mission at the University of Arizona, he’s leading this whole sample analysis team and making the plans for the scientific investigations and prioritizing all of those. And the curation team is really supporting the science team in that role. But you mentioned that part of this sample will be archived: that’s a really important point. All of this entire sample analysis plan only uses 25% of the sample; the other 75% is planned to be archived for future generations. So our grandkids would have access to write a proposal to examine part of the sample with a new scientific instrument that wasn’t available today, you know, and that’s the same philosophy that the Apollo samples have been curated under. So…
Host: Yeah. And we’ve seen the benefit of that very recently, too. I know you’re probably more intimately familiar with the ANGSA (Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program) efforts. This was Apollo samples that were preserved for, I mean, pretty much 50 years, right, and opened very recently because exactly what you’re saying, the technology improved so much that we can do new, fantastic research and it’s thanks to the 50 years’ worth of preservation that we’re actually able to do that. But I’m, I’m, it’s, it’s like that logic pretty much, right?
Nicole Lunning: Exactly. Exactly. And those, the Apollo curation folks, they’re in the same building as me, just down the hall. We talk to each other all the time. We’re always learning lessons from them.
Nicole Lunning: And so, the ANGSA stuff really came to fruition 50 years. And we are planning to have a similar sample, a hermetically-sealed sample for OSIRIS-Rex, that will be kind of analogous to that. But also, within the 50 years since Apollo, there’s stuff that has been happening just in the last ten to 15 to 20 years that couldn’t have happened 50 years ago. And so that was allocations from the regular collection. And we’ll be doing that as well from, for O-REx. So that’s one of the things I look forward to for the decades of my career to come, being part of allocating sample to the community as, as the science around asteroids develops.
Host: Fantastic. Yeah. Lots of work ahead. Lots of prep[erations] happening. Mike, in terms of other prep for the return, before we actually talk about the return itself, what else has to be coordinated on the ground to make sure teams are truly ready for when this thing comes, and you guys can go full force into studying it?
Mike Moreau: Well, there’s a lot. I mean, obviously before the spacecraft launched, we had to go through and show that we had good plans for recovering the sample, but all of those plans were made in 2014 or earlier. And so we’re dusting those off and figuring out, OK, well, we said we were going to do this; does that still make sense, is that the right answer? So, there’s a few different aspects. One is just the trajectory design and, and making sure that that’s all in the place that it needs to be, and that we’re, you know, the plan for conducting the maneuvers on the spacecraft to get the sample home. There’s a whole component of looking at the various things that could go wrong and can we ensure that the, we can recover from those, or if there’s a failure of the spacecraft that, that there isn’t a safety concern for anyone. And then there’s all the preparations on the ground. So, Lockheed Martin, our partner, has responsible for, responsibility for executing the recovery operation with their personnel, working very closely with our Air Force and, and Army colleagues. And so, we’ve got to make all the preparations for how we will operate at their facility, you know, contracting with helicopters, all that kind of stuff, to, to make the plans and make sure we’re ready to go this September. So…
Host: Yeah. Lots to go. Let’s go into the return itself. So what is going to happen: OSIRIS-REx is on its way back, it’s going to pass through the atmosphere and land somewhere. So what’s the trajectory look like?
Mike Moreau: So we set up all of this in May of 2021 when we did a maneuver on the spacecraft that caused us to leave the vicinity of Bennu. And that set us up on this slow, we basically do two orbits of the Sun with the idea that the trajectory intersects the Earth in September of 2023. So right now the spacecraft is headed back towards the Earth, but it’s slated to fly by the Earth. If we didn’t do anything else, spacecraft would fly by the Earth at a distance about 2,500 kilometers. So in July of next, of this year now…
Mike Moreau:…July’s coming up fast…
Host: Yeah. [Laughter]
Mike Moreau:…July of this year, we’re going to do another burn on the spacecraft and essentially walk that flyby distance closer. So the spacecraft’s then targeted to fly by at about 250 kilometers. And that’s intentional ’cause if something goes wrong with the spacecraft between now and then, we don’t want it to be on an impact trajectory with the Earth.
Host: Makes sense.
Mike Moreau: But then about two weeks out, we’re going to walk that trajectory towards the atmospheric interface point. So where does the spacecraft, where does the capsule have to intersect the atmosphere to land in Utah? We’re going to aim for that spot. And then the spacecraft will be aimed for that spot for about two weeks. And then four hours before entry, just the sample capsule is released and then the spacecraft does a divert burn to miss the Earth. And so that sets up the whole return or the recovery of the capsule: [capsule] enters the atmosphere, takes about two minutes to go from the off the coast of California where it interfaces with the atmosphere to the area close to Utah; there’s a drogue chute that comes out to make sure the space, the, the capsule’s stable during the re-entry; and then main parachutes come down. So about 13 minutes after it hits the atmosphere, it’s going to be on the ground in Utah. And we’ll be tracking it with optical and radar trackers, and we’ll have an aircraft that is tracking the entry. All of that information will be used to calculate where we think it’s going to come down in the ellipse, and we’ll send our helicopter teams out to try and go get it.
Host: Excellent. Now that one, the capsule, the, that contains the sample is coming back; what happens, you said the other, the other part of the spacecraft goes back into space, what happens with that one?
Mike Moreau: So originally — that’s an interesting question, we could go whole, a whole podcast on that– but the spacecraft was, after it flies by the Earth it gets a gravity assist by the Earth and that actually pushes its orbit into the inner solar system. So down towards the distance of the Venus orbit around the Sun, so about half the, the distance between the Earth and the Sun. That’s a lot hotter regime than the spacecraft was designed to operate in, and so the original thought was, well, the mission’s just going to end then, we’ll decommission the spacecraft, it’s not going to survive that perihelion passage. But the unique, our trajectory designer named Brian Sutter at Lockheed Martin came up with this really great mission concept that allows OSIRIS-REx to fly for several more years, several Earth flybys, and rendezvous with another near-Earth asteroid called Apophis in 2029. And so that flyby we do of the Earth is the first maneuver that sets up that arrival with Apophis in 2029. And so we’ve come up with a design and, and configuration of spacecraft to try to protect it during that hot environment. And we think that we’ve got a chance to, to survive and, and rendezvous with another whole mission and characterize it in great detail.
Host: Yeah. With all the same instruments that were used for, for Bennu.
Mike Moreau: Exactly.
Host: Wow. Fantastic.
Mike Moreau: So that’s a story for another day. But the team is going to be trying to keep the spacecraft going and, and it’s got a lot of fuel in the tank, and at, all instruments are fully capable so we’re excited about, about, you know, doing even more with it after the sample gets home.
Host: You think you’re free in January 2029? We’ll get you on the calendar now. What week, what week works for you in Jan, in` ’29?
Mike Moreau: Yeah.
Host: [Laughter] We’ll find, we’ll find a day. Maybe later. OK, fantastic. Now the capsule, let’s go back to the capsule that lands in Utah. The recovery operations, Nicole, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll leave to you. You, you mentioned, so like, you mentioned something where like someone runs over with like a nitrogen canister to keep the, you know, the, the, the sample pristine, but what else, what, what is all part of the recovery operations to really grab this thing?
Nicole Lunning: Yeah, so first we do have to, our field recovery team will do have to do some safety assessments — safety first, always — and then the capsule will be brought back via helicopter actually to a portable clean room we’ll have set up. And there’s a few disassembly steps that have to happen before we can run over with that nitrogen bottle.
Host: Oh, OK.
Nicole Lunning: The curation folks are, are eager for that to happen, but for safety and just to access the septum where the, we connect in the nitrogen, the heat shield and the backshell actually come off in that portable clean room that we’re setting up. Same kind of contamination controls, requirements the spacecraft had and our clean rooms at JSC had, of really limiting what that Sample Return Capsule might be exposed to in the clean room as these disassembly steps take place. And then the Sample Return Capsule, it’s kind of like a matryoshka doll a little bit: there’s next a sample canister inside of it, and inside of that the TAGSAM head is there. So basically, the back, heat shield and backshell come off, we’ll have that sample canister, that’s where the nitrogen purge gets hooked on. It’ll be put in a shipping container and then flown to Ellington Field down here in Houston, and from Ellington we’ll bring it to JSC to get it into our clean lab. And then we’ll do the rest of the disassembly of the canister inside a nitrogen glovebox.
Host: OK. This, this pop-up tent is also in Utah?
Nicole Lunning: Yes, it will also be in Utah.
Host: OK. That makes sense. So the flight is, is relatively short. You can do that and then once everything is prepped, then you can take that long journey back to, to Houston.
Mike Moreau: Yeah. We want to get it on that nitrogen purge as soon as possible. There’s a requirement, like, or a goal of like two hours, I think, to try to get the capsule out of the field and into the clean room on the purge.
Host: OK. All right.
Nicole Lunning: So the canister has the, the filter part, so it is, the sample is still more protected than a meteorite would be during that two hours, but we still want to get it on the nitrogen purge as quickly as possible.
Host: I bet. Now, once it arrives at the Johnson Space Center and the curation facility, what’s about the timeframe you think to, to do everything you want to do: you know, make sure that you, you were talking about the facilities, you have to make sure the sample is pristine, to divide it into the different boxes or whatever that were required for each of the researchers, about how long from the time it arrives at Houston to the time the researchers can really get their hands on it?
Nicole Lunning: So it will probably take us, before we’re actually shipping it out to people like Dante Lauretta, the PI (principal investigator) of the science mission, it will probably take us about a month because we are going to actually do a lot of spacecraft disassembly in those gloveboxes, and we’ll do some initial sample characterization. So to decide which samples we should send to the researchers, we need to know a little bit about of that. And the science team is working with us in that, so they’re going to try to do some imaging that is similar to what the spacecraft did on the asteroid to try to pick out, for instance, those two lithologies we mentioned, before we even take any sample out of the gloveboxes or even put it in sealed containers. And so, we’ll be working with them to do it, to do that initial description of the sample once we get it out.
Host: My first thought is that is quick; a month. That is not a lot of time from the time you get it, characterize all these samples, I’m sure you’re going to be communicating with the researchers because they’re going to want to know what they’re getting, right? Basically, like a profile of, oh, here’s the sample you’re getting. That’s, that’s pretty quick.
Nicole Lunning: I mean, there, there’ll be more for them to add, and we are going to also do something called, we’re planning to do something called a quick look sample. So in one of the very earliest stages of disassembly in the glovebox we’ll take that, the lid off the canister, we won’t even have gotten into the TAGSAM, and we’re planning to try to brush some dust off the top of the TAGSAM, which we think will be there. Something we haven’t talked about really yet, Mike, on this is the TAGSAM, the, the TAG, the collection, touch and go collection event, was so successful that the sample collector was overflowing with sample before it was stowed in the Sample Return Capsule. So we do have the expectation that there will be some dust on the hardware, other places, and that makes that purge more important for protecting all the sample. It’s great to have more sample than we were expecting, you’d think, but we are also expecting to have this additional sample within the canister. And so that will actually go within Johnson Space Center, it will start being analyzed so we can get some early science results, both to share with the scientists who are anticipating getting the sample early on as part of the science team, but also to share with the, with the world, so we can start to tell what we brought back.
Mike Moreau: Yeah. I should mention too that we’re planning to allow the public to try to follow along in this process. NASA’s planning on making the actual landing of the SRC a big communications event so we, it’ll be covered live…
Mike Moreau:…and then the sample will transport to Houston as early as the next day. And some of those initial steps of opening up the sample canister and seeing the sample material for the first time could be in that first day or two. So we, we were hoping, you know, to make video and other things available of that process and through a blog and, and other social media sources and stuff like that. So the public’s really going to be able to follow along and see the, the “wow” moments of looking at the sample for the first time along with the team.
Host: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of people in the public that are, they, they may not be doing the research but I think they’re excited about the possibilities. You know, these, this is answering some, some big questions here. I was just imagining, Nicole, as you were describing that process of disassembling the spacecraft, you know, like, it’s almost like you’re cleaning, you’re cleaning off the spacecraft, but you’re not throwing any of that dust away. [Laughter]
Nicole Lunning: No, we’re not throwing any of it away. We are going to try to keep all of it.
Host: Preserving all of it. That’s so fun. Yeah, for sure. But yeah, I mean, really the reason we’re talking about this and, and everything, that’s all of the effort really that’s going into this mission, right? We talked about all the challenges and we’re trying to make the most, even of the spacecraft — the spacecraft is not done after this mission, it’s going to go to another asteroid. There’s just these fantastic questions. And I can only imagine what the scientific community is talking about, is thinking, for this sample return. This is, I mean, do, do you have like a, a vibe on, on what the scientific community is, is, is saying about what, you know, what, what they’re thinking for September and what that’s going to be like?
Mike Moreau: Well, I can talk about the, they’ve broken it into four key questions that the science team is, is trying to address through the analysis of the sample. How does the sample compare with observations that the spacecraft made at Bennu, in terms of, you know, the interpretation we’ve made of what Bennu’s composition is, is it, does it jibe with that? How does the sample, does the sample contain organic compounds that could have influenced the origin of life, what Nicole was talking about earlier? What does it tell us about the early history of the solar system and the formation of the solar system? And then also, has it changed since we collected it? You know, and that could be the, you know, clumps of material that broke up or, you know, or, or not. And, you know, characteristics about the, the actual material that we collected. So those are four key questions. There’s something like 38 institutions all over the world that are going to receive elements of the sample. You know, 180-something team members on the sample analysis team. And, and I should mention too, that we have two international partners with the mission. The Canadian government contributed one of the instruments on the spacecraft and in return gets a portion of the sample to study however they want, and Japan is a partner, too. The, the two countries made an agreement to exchange samples between the OSIRIS-REx program and the Hyabusa2 program that would give both sample teams the chance to analyze something in the event that one of the missions failed. So they’ve both been successful, so those sample teams in some cases are analyzing samples from two different asteroids.
Host: Yeah. Too much to go…
Mike Moreau: Really exciting. So…
Host: Awesome. What, are you hearing the same thing from your end, Nicole? The, the just general excitement and, and…
Nicole Lunning: Absolutely. I think a lot of people are really excited to, both the science team to answer the questions that Mike highlighted…
Nicole Lunning:…and to get a sample of an asteroid that we know exactly where it came from, we know what this asteroid looked like, the geologic context of it being a rubble pile, all of that additional information that we don’t usually have if you’re just, if you’re studying a meteorite, and getting into, we haven’t talked about too much, but the, most of the samples in our asteroid belt are left over from the earliest formation days of our solar system before the planets were built, and so having that unmodified, really pristine material does get into all these early solar system questions of the organic compounds. Building blocks of life is really a big one, but lots of others too, of water in the solar system and, and other features that we’re expecting to be able to explore and have the scientific community explore for, for both the, the, the initial sample analysis of the science team and many, many years beyond.
Host: It’s like a rewrite the science books level of, of information that we might get from this. It’s very exciting. I mean, so Mike, I, I’m sure you’re excited because you’ve, you’ve, you’ve dedicated a lot of your career to this mission. You’ve sort of, I guess, moved up the ladder in terms of responsibility and what you’re overseeing. It sounds like, even your, your plans after it returns is to continue in a different role with this mission. It’s, it’s almost like you, you have like a giant fingerprint on this, like your career is like really a, a, has a, is a large fingerprint of that is, is the OSIRIS-REx mission; how’s it feel really to contribute to, to something of that magnitude?
Mike Moreau: Well, it’s really, it is amazing. It’s one of the things that’s kind of amazing is that it’s already 2023 and we’re just months away from the sample coming home, because I can tell you that in 2013 or 2014 that seemed like a lifetime away. So it’s kind of hard to believe that some of us have been involved with the mission for so long and, and just looking back at all the challenges that the team overcome, it really gives a great sense of pride not just for whatever you contributed individually, but being part of such a great group of people that rose to the challenge and, and really worked together in the way that only great, great groups do. So that, that’s what I’m really most proud of is, how, how the team worked together and, and the memories that they have of making this a great success.
Mike Moreau: In terms of what I’m going to do after, though, I think I should talk to Nicole about going to Antarctica and looking for meteorites because she did it before the mission, maybe I’ll do it after.
Nicole Lunning: You should, you should.
Mike Moreau: Check Antarctica off my list, you know.
Host: That does sound very exciting. How about, yeah, Nicole, you mentioned your, your passion for OSIRIS-REx early on and eventually making your way to being a significant part of this mission. In, in, in a sense you were there, you’ve made it, you’ve done it; do you feel that level of connection with the, with the mission?
Nicole Lunning: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I mentioned before, I came on in 2020 but I watched the launch on my cell phone with a friend. You know, I, I followed the rendezvous, NASA live program as the, the spacecraft got to Bennu. So it is really amazing for me to be part of it, especially, I mean, I fell in love with asteroids through meteorites, but, I also, being able to be part of a mission, exploring them, and to be able to be part of the group that’s going to take care of this sample long term, that this is going to be its new home at Johnson Space Center and I’m going to be part of the team that, that gets to work with it and help scientists study it, is really cool.
Host: All right. Well, I hope you let me know first if you find anything, like, super-interesting and then, we’ll bring you back on to the podcast. I’m very excited. This was very cool to have you both here to talk about it now, but really, I mean, I can’t, I can’t even wait for September. I’m sure you guys are, are anticipating it as well, but September’s going to be pretty big. So, so wishing you both the best of luck; there’s a lot, sounds like on both of your sides there’s still a lot to do up to September.
Nicole Lunning: For sure.
Host: So yeah, definitely appreciate your time, especially today. I’m sure it’s even busy now. But thanks for coming on talking about OSIRIS-REx, getting folks excited about this mission and best of luck to both of the teams for, for getting ready for September.
Mike Moreau: Awesome. Thank you.
Nicole Lunning: Thank you.
Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. Really enjoyed the conversation today with Mike and Nicole. I hope you learned something today. This is of course not the first time that we’ve discussed OSIRIS-REx. It’s a really fascinating mission. You can go all the way back and listen to Episode 27, “The Search for Life” when we recorded it before O-REx even reached Bennu. And then you can go forward and listen to Episode 253; we did this one a little bit more recently, it’s called “The Blueprint of Life.” That goes into more detail about a novel kind of research that may be used on O-REx’s samples. You can check NASA.gov for the latest at any time. Go to NASA.gov/podcasts to find us and many other NASA podcasts we have here at the agency. And of course, if you want to talk to us, you can find us on social media: we’re on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And on those pages, you can use the hashtag #AskNASA to submit an idea for the show, just make sure to mention it’s for us at Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on January 10, 2023. Thanks to Will Flato, Pat Ryan, Heidi Lavelle, Belinda Pulido, Jaden Jennings, and Nilufar Ramji. And of course, thanks again to Mike and Nicole for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be back next week.