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U.Arkansas Targets Asteroid Sample Return Mission

3D computer graphic of an asteroid based on Earth-based radar sampling
Fayetteville - Jan 8, 2001
In the wake of NASA's successful Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous space mission, a University of Arkansas researcher is putting together a team of scientists to take asteroid research to the next level -- bringing asteroid samples back to Earth.

Derek Sears, professor of chemistry and director of the Arkansas- Oklahoma Center for Space and Planetary Sciences, has proposed a mission called Hera that will visit three near-Earth asteroids, obtain samples from them and return the samples to Earth. The project is named for Hera, a Greek goddess and mother of the three graces, joyfulness, bloom and brightness.

The Arkansas-Oklahoma center will provide the infrastructure and support required to produce the mission.

Such a mission has only recently become possible, according to Sears. But with the advent of new engines for driving interplanetary spacecraft, the NEAR spacecraft completing a successful mission, and the discovery of 1,000 or more near-Earth asteroids in the past two years, the mission has become feasible.

"We have the right engines, another space craft doing a dry run, and we have plenty of targets," Sears said.

According to current plans, the spacecraft will feature a touch-and-go sampler designed by Steven Gorevan and Shaheed Rafeek of Honeybee Robotics, Inc. The sampler will hover above the asteroids and extend a high-speed drill into the surface. The probe will capture fragments from the drilling and store them in containers aboard the spacecraft.

The craft will also contain cameras, spectrometers and other scientific equipment that will record information about the asteroids.

Sears and his colleagues recently gathered at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston to discuss various aspects of the mission. They talked about the scientific case for sample return, spacecraft maneuvers in the vicinity of small asteroids, sample collection devices and planetary protection issues, and the implications for resource utilization, impact hazard mitigation and human exploration and development of space.

The mission will address some of the most fundamental questions in science as defined by NASA's Space Science Enterprise Plan in 1997. Hera addresses seven of the 11 goals set by NASA in the plan, including:

  • Information on the formation of the solar system
  • Stellar evolution and the relationship between stars and planet formation
  • The origin of molecules necessary for life on Earth
  • The possibilities of life on other planets.
  • A record of solar activity
  • Prediction and possible deflection of Earth-bound objects
  • A precursor to human exploration and colonization of space

Researchers at NASA's Glenn Research Center determined the mission trajectory. Hera would launch in January 2006, reaching the first asteroid, 1999 AO10, after eight months. It would spend about 99 days at the first two asteroids, AO10 and 2000AG6, and 205 days at the third, 1989 UQ, returning to earth in November 2010.

The current team of researchers planning project Hera includes: Sears, Don Brownlee of the University of Washington, Carle Pieters of Brown University, M. Lindstrom of the University of Tennessee, D. Britt of Johnson Space Center, B.C. Clark of Lockheed Martin Astronautics, L. Gefert of Glenn Research Center, S. Gorevan of Honeybee Robotics and J.C. Preble of SpaceWorks, Inc.

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Asteroid Portfolio Gets A Boost With New Optics
Boulder - Oct. 26, 2000
Large telescopes with deformable optics are allowing astronomers to study distant asteroids with unprecedented clarity -- leading to the discovery of new shapes and configurations and presenting scientists with new puzzles to solve.

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