Subscribe free to our newsletters via your
. 24/7 Space News .

MIT students to build imaging instrument to fly aboard mission to an asteroid
by Jennifer Chu for MIT News Office
Boston MA (SPX) Jul 27, 2011

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

The asteroid 1999 RQ36 may not be a household name, but astronomers predict that in less than 200 years, it may make an unforgettable impact. According to radar and optical observations, the space rock, measuring some five football fields in diameter, has a 1 in 1,000 chance of crashing into Earth in the year 2182.

Astronomers are also interested in the asteroid's potential to reveal clues about Earth's origins. Based on spectral imaging data, 1999 RQ36 is likely made primarily of carbon and is a relatively untainted remnant of the early solar system, formed 4.56 billion years ago.

The asteroid is the target destination for OSIRIS-REx, a NASA spacecraft scheduled to launch in 2016. The spacecraft, being developed jointly by the University of Arizona, Lockheed Martin and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, aims to bring back a pristine sample of the asteroid by 2023. Now an instrument to be built by students from MIT and Harvard University may help the spacecraft determine where to find the oldest, purest asteroid samples.

NASA recently green-lighted a joint proposal by these MIT and Harvard students to build an X-ray imaging spectrometer, called REXIS (Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer), to fly aboard OSIRIS-REx. The instrument will analyze the asteroid's surface for the presence of iron, oxygen and other life-forming elements.

"It's a chance to sample the original chemistry of everything that makes the Earth, and us," says Richard Binzel, professor of planetary sciences in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and an advisor to the student project. "So we're going to be very picky about trying to get the best sample possible."

The student instrument will accompany a suite of others aboard the spacecraft, including cameras that will map the asteroid's size, shape and surface composition. Other instruments will measure the effect of solar wind on the asteroid's orbit - information that may help astronomers plot the asteroid's path relative to the Earth.

David Miller, professor of space systems in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says the project gives students a rare opportunity to "get their hands dirty" building space-ready hardware.

"In the early days of the space business, a lot of students got a chance to build stuff and launch it," Miller says. "These days, it's a very mature industry ... and it's hard for students to really get the scars on their knuckles, trying to build these things."

The hands-on project will get under way this fall as part of the MIT Space Systems Engineering capstone class, co-taught by Miller along with Sara Seager, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Extrasolar Planets, and Kerri Cahoy, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics. Students from both MIT and Harvard will be able to register for the class, and will likely fine-tune the design over several years.

Miller anticipates plenty of technical challenges along the way. For example, in order to get the best measurements, the X-ray spectrometer will be bolted to the outside of the spacecraft, meaning it will receive a high dose of radiation from the sun and cosmic rays on its trip to the asteroid. Longevity is also a concern: It will take three years for the spacecraft to reach its destination before it even begins to explore the asteroid's surface.

Miller plans to have the students build the instrument "multiple times, until we get it right." In the first year, students will design a functional mock-up of the instrument that is able to detect X-rays. In the second year, students will build a new and improved model, fit to the specifications of the main spacecraft. Miller says this model will then be put through a series of vibration tests that simulate launch conditions.

"The eight-minute ride to orbit is always the most dynamically harsh environment that any space vehicle feels," Miller says. "If it can survive well beyond those levels, we think we have a good design."

In the third year, students will engineer the flight unit - the instrument that will fly to the asteroid. In addition to the technical expertise students will gain through the project, Miller hopes they will learn some real-world lessons: They'll have to present progress reports to NASA and the OSIRIS-REx team, and deliver results on schedule.

Throughout the project, students from MIT and Harvard will work with scientists from MIT's Lincoln Laboratory and the Harvard College Observatory, as well as NASA and Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver.

"Going and bringing back this time capsule from the beginning of the solar system is absolutely a huge opportunity," Binzel says. "We launch in 2016, and the return is 2023, and by that time, students will be off doing other things, but they will always have a piece of this."


Related Links
Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
Asteroid and Comet Mission News, Science and Technology

Comment on this article via your Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail login.

Share this article via these popular social media networks DiggDigg RedditReddit GoogleGoogle

Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News

Dawn Spacecraft Beams Back New Photo
Pasadena CA (JPL) Jul 22, 2011
Dawn took this image during its current orbit of Vesta, traveling from the day side to the night side. The large structure near the south pole that showed up so prominently in previous images is visible in the center of the illuminated surface. Compared to other images, this one shows more of the surface beneath the spacecraft in the shadow of night. Vesta turns on its axis onc ... read more

Unique volcanic complex discovered on Lunar far side

Moon Express Announces Dr. Alan Stern as Chief Scientist

Northrop Grumman Honored by IEEE for Development of Lunar Module

Two NASA Probes Tackle New Mission: Studying The Moon

NASA's Next Mars Rover to Land at Gale Crater

Opportunity Closing In On Spirit Point At Endeavour Crater

MAVEN Mission Completes Major Milestone

NASA says Mars mountain will read like 'a great novel'

SwRI suborbital astronaut payload specialists move to flight planning phase, release mission patch

Graybiel Lab poised for next chapter of space exploration

Space Program Mavens Comment on the Future of Space Exploration

This Time It's Both Rocket Science AND Surgery

Spotlight Time for Tiangong

China launches new data relay satellite

Time Enough for Tiangong

China launches experimental satellite

ISS to be sunk after 2020: Russian space agency

Certification for ISS onboard astronaut

NASA and International Partners Discuss New Uses for Space Station

NASA, SpaceX agree on space station flight

Russia sends observation satellite into space

NASA inks agreement with maker of Atlas V rocket

Russia launches 2 foreign satellites into orbit

ILS Proton Successfully Launches the SES-3 Satellite for SES

Distant planet aurorae modeled

Exoplanet Aurora: An Out-of-this-World Sight

Ten new distant planets detected

Microlensing Finds a Rocky Planet

Turksat turns to GMV for control of its satellites

Lockheed Martin's Multi-Mission Signal Processor Completes Tracking Test

Sharper deeper faster 3D imaging

Rare Coupling of Magnetic and Electric Properties in a Single Material

The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2014 - Space Media Network. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement