The University of Arizona

UA-Led Asteroid Mission Wins State Innovation Award

By Daniel Stolte, University Communications | December 5, 2011

The Arizona Technology Council has named the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory the Innovator of the Year in the academia category for the OSIRIS-REx mission, which will return a sample from an asteroid in 2023. The mission team was recognized during the annual Governor's Celebration of Innovation awards gala.

On behalf of the OSIRIS-REx mission team, LPL project planning and control officer Heather Enos (center) accepts the Innovator of the Year award from Kathy Sacks of Infusionsoft and Steve Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology
Council. (Photo: Mark Goldstein, International Research Center)
On behalf of the OSIRIS-REx mission team, LPL project planning and control officer Heather Enos (center) accepts the Innovator of the Year award from Kathy Sacks of Infusionsoft and Steve Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council. (Photo: Mark Goldstein, International Research Center)
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will orbit and explore asteroid 1999 RQ36 for more than a year before closing in and collecting a sample of pristine organic material that may have seeded Earth with the building blocks that led to life.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will orbit and explore asteroid 1999 RQ36 for more than a year before closing in and collecting a sample of pristine organic material that may have seeded Earth with the building blocks that led to life.

The University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, or LPL, received the Arizona Technology Council's Innovator of the Year Award in the academia category at the annual Governor's Celebration of Innovation awards gala.

The council recognized the OSIRIS-REx team worked for more than six years to create a mission blueprint, which includes innovative science, key technologies use, strong national and international partnerships, job creation and educational opportunities for future economic strength. 

The OSIRIS-REx mission will launch in 2016, rendezvous with the asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2019 and return its sample to Earth in 2023. The mission will investigate origins, life and threats to Earth from impacts.

The Governor's Celebration of Innovation is held annually to celebrate technology leaders and innovators across the state. The gala at the Phoenix Convention Center included the awards ceremony and exhibitors' hall prior to the sit-down dinner for about 1,000 attendees. Exhibitors in the hall included businesses and academia.

OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer and plays off the two themes for the mission: understanding asteroids' contributions to the origins of life (Osiris is the Egyptian god of life) and their threats to our existence (T. rex is one of the dinosaur species whose demise may have been caused by an asteroid impact).

The OSIRIS-REx mission is designed to return the first pristine samples of carbonaceous material from the surface of a primitive asteroid. The target asteroid is 1999 RQ36, the most accessible organic-rich remnant from the early solar system and the most hazardous asteroid known to date.

The detailed characterization of 1999 RQ36 and its returned samples will significantly enhance our understanding of the initial stages of planet formation and the sources of organics that may have ultimately led to the origin of life on Earth.

Under the leadership of the late Michael Drake, former planetary sciences department head who served as the mission's principal investigator, and deputy principal investigator Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx team has worked for more than six years to bring this mission to Arizona.

Cleverly integrating multiple key technologies, the team created a blueprint for a mission that will provide and maintain highly technical and well-paying jobs for Arizona while creating unprecedented opportunities to understand the origins of our solar system and engage young minds with the excitement of scientific exploration, all the while allowing the general public to closely follow the mission. 

The OSIRIS-REx mission was one of three finalists for this award, which included the UA's Eller College Management Information Systems Department's Artificial Intelligence team led by Hsinchun Chen. Their "Dark Web Forum Portal" was nominated for its innovative approach of allowing counter-terrorism investigators, intelligence analysts, and other interested researchers to analyze the Internet presence of terrorists, hate groups, and other extremists through social media sites including Internet forums and videos.

The other team, led by Sudhir Kumar, a professor in the School of Life Sciences and director of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine & Informatics at ASU's Biodesign Institute, pioneered three tools to aid in the large-scale analysis of DNA from humans and much of life on Earth.

According to Anna Spitz, OSIRIS-REx education and public outreach lead, both use of heritage components and innovative designs will contribute to the success of the mission.

"OSIRIS-REx follows a tried-and-proven approach as much as possible to employ successful technology and keep mission costs down," Spitz said. "For example, the sample return capsule design was successfully used in NASA's Stardust mission, and some of the components of the OSIRIS-REx camera suite, OCAMS, have passed the test of previous missions as well."

Other key components, however, make the OSIRIS-REx mission highly innovative, such as the system designed for obtaining the sample, which must address the difficult task of collecting soil in the vacuum of space while the spacecraft hovers at the asteroid. Mission partner Lockheed Martin has tested prototypes, which demonstrate the ability to reliably collect at least 60 grams (about 2 ounces) of bulk material.

Prior to sample collection, OSIRIS-REx instruments will perform global mapping of the texture, mineralogy and chemistry of the asteroid and document the surface down to the millimeter scales. This variation in resolution scale requires a camera system to act as a microscope and as a telescope.

The UA is building OCAMS to accomplish this feat. Goddard Space Flight Center, Arizona State University and the Canadian Space Agency are building other instruments to provide details about the asteroid at other wavelengths. A team of students from MIT and Harvard are also building an instrument for the mission – gaining real-world mission experience as undergraduates.

The OSIRIS-REx mission also is innovative in its partnerships. Led by principal Investigator Lauretta, the UA-led mission partners not only with Goddard Space Flight Center, Lockheed Martin and instrument teams, but also with the Arizona firm, KinetX Aerospace in Tempe, Arizona, which will provide mission design and navigation.

The mission will provide opportunities for generations – from design and fabrication to sample analysis. The innovations arising from this mission will extend to other science investigations and even other industries – for science, engineering and partnering/management.

The mission cost, excluding the launch vehicle, will be approximately $800 million. Approximately $225 million will flow through the UA, with about $152 million being spent in Tucson.

These estimated values represent direct spending and do not include multipliers for a total economic impact. Approximately $187 million will be spent across Arizona as a result of the OSIRIS-REx mission, supporting approximately 100 jobs.

The mission will further strengthen Arizona's leadership in planetary exploration and help to showcase Arizona's high-tech capabilities.

The OSIRIS-REx mission creates multiple opportunities for education, research and outreach with its demanding engineering requirements, the scientific excitement in examining carbonaceous material from an asteroid, and the chance for the public to participate as the mission progresses.

An unusual advantage of this particular project is its longevity, resulting in multi-generational benefits to scientists, the public, students and entrepreneurs. Providing high-fidelity context for the samples, maintaining their pristine nature, and safely returning them to Earth sets the stage for research that cannot be duplicated in space.

The generous sample size returned by the OSIRIS-REx mission will provide an enduring scientific treasure to generations of scientists that only a sample return mission can provide.

Tim Swindle, who heads the UA's planetary sciences department, said: "I was happy to see the OSIRIS-REx team won the award because it exemplifies what we do at the UA in general and LPL in particular – push forward new and innovative technologies. I also think it's appropriate that we won a statewide award because we train students in engineering and science, and we partner with small companies within Arizona. This is a great honor for us, and it's very rewarding to see that the University received statewide recognition."

Also presented at the Nov. 17 ceremony was the William F. McWhortor Community Service Leader of the Year Award, given each year to an individual who contributes to Arizona's technological achievements through community involvement, leadership ability and excellence in developing economic activity. This year's winner was James C. Wyant, dean of the UA's College of Optical Sciences, renowned entrepreneur and cofounder of WYKO Corp. and 4D Technology.

Previous awards to Wyant include the SPIE Technology Achievement Award in 1988, the Arizona Innovator of the Year Product Award in 1993, UA's Technology Innovation Award in 2005 and the Tom Brown Excellence in Entrepreneurship Award in 2005.