Planetary astronomer co-authors studies of asteroid as member of NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission

October 08, 2020

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft mission, launched on Sept. 8, 2016, is the first U.S. mission designed to retrieve a pristine sample of an asteroid and return it to Earth for further study. The mission's target is Bennu, a carbon-rich near-Earth asteroid that is potentially hazardous, representing an approximately 1 in 2,700 chance of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century.

Scientists believe Bennu may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth's oceans, so one of the mission's main objectives is to determine Bennu's physical and chemical properties.

"The spacecraft has been observing the asteroid for nearly two years now," said Joshua Emery, associate professor in NAU's Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science and a member of the OSIRIS-REx science team. "Bennu has turned out to be a fascinating small asteroid and has given us many surprises."

The mission's first attempt to pick up the sample is scheduled for Oct. 20, 2020, and the spacecraft is scheduled to return the sample back to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023. In advance of the sample collection, the science team published a set of six papers in Science and Science Advances, four of which Emery co-authored, to share its scientific findings to date while building interest in the upcoming event.

"We've been working for over a decade toward the upcoming sampling attempt," he said. "It's such an exciting time. The spacecraft will send back data pretty quickly to let us know if the maneuver itself was successful, and it'll be exciting to see images from the sampling event, which should be sent back within a day."

The papers describe the detailed characterization of the surface using images, spectroscopy (composition) and thermal measurements. Emery summarizes each of the four papers he co-authored:"It's been such thrill and honor to be part of the OSIRIS-REx team," Emery said. "As lead of the thermal analysis working group, it has been very exciting for me to be very involved in planning the observations the spacecraft has made in preparation for sampling and then figuring out from the data what the surfaces is like. The rocks on Bennu look strange, and we found from the thermal data that they are so weak that we could easily crush them in our hands. Still, they have existed on this asteroid for over a billion years! These rocks also contain complex organic molecules that form naturally in space, and asteroids like Bennu could have brought these organic molecules to Earth billions of years ago to seed the beginnings of life. When the sample is returned to Earth, scientists will be able to study these molecules in exquisite detail."

Emery, who joined NAU in 2019, applies the techniques of astronomical reflection and emission spectroscopy and spectrophotometry of primitive and icy bodies in the near- (0.8 to 5.0 microns) and mid-infrared (5 to 50 microns) to investigate the formation and evolution of the Solar System and the distribution of organic material.

The Jupiter Trojan asteroids have been a strong focus of his research, and he also regularly observes Kuiper Belt objects, icy satellites and other asteroid groups to understand the state of their surfaces as related to these topics. In addition to contributing to Solar System exploration as a science team member on the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, he also collaborated on the upcoming Lucy Trojan asteroid flyby mission and the NEO Surveyor Mission infrared telescope mission.
About Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University is a higher-research institution providing exceptional educational opportunities in Arizona and beyond. NAU delivers a student-centered experience to its 31,000 students in Flagstaff, statewide and online through rigorous academic programs in a supportive, inclusive and diverse environment. Dedicated, world-renowned faculty help ensure students achieve academic excellence, experience personal growth, have meaningful research opportunities and are positioned for personal and professional success.

Links to the four papers:

Northern Arizona University

Related Solar System Articles from Brightsurf:

Ultraviolet shines light on origins of the solar system
In the search to discover the origins of our solar system, an international team of researchers, including planetary scientist and cosmochemist James Lyons of Arizona State University, has compared the composition of the sun to the composition of the most ancient materials that formed in our solar system: refractory inclusions in unmetamorphosed meteorites.

Second alignment plane of solar system discovered
A study of comet motions indicates that the Solar System has a second alignment plane.

Pressure runs high at edge of solar system
Out at the boundary of our solar system, pressure runs high.

What a dying star's ashes tell us about the birth of our solar system
A UA-led team of researchers discovered a dust grain forged in a stellar explosion before our solar system was born.

What scientists found after sifting through dust in the solar system
Two recent studies report discoveries of dust rings in the inner solar system: a dust ring at Mercury's orbit, and a group of never-before-detected asteroids co-orbiting with Venus, supplying the dust in Venus' orbit.

Discovered: The most-distant solar system object ever observed
A team of astronomers has discovered the most-distant body ever observed in our solar system.

Discovery of the first body in the Solar System with an extrasolar origin
Asteroid 2015 BZ509 is the very first object in the Solar System shown to have an extrasolar origin.

First interstellar immigrant discovered in the solar system
A new study has discovered the first known permanent immigrant to our solar system.

A star disturbed the comets of the solar system in prehistory
About 70,000 years ago, when the human species was already on Earth, a small reddish star approached our solar system and gravitationally disturbed comets and asteroids.

Scientists detect comets outside our solar system
Scientists from MIT and other institutions, working closely with amateur astronomers, have spotted the dusty tails of six exocomets -- comets outside our solar system -- orbiting a faint star 800 light years from Earth.

Read More: Solar System News and Solar System Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to