Space Celebration

The OSIRIS-REx team is throwing a party for the UA’s latest space mission

Somewhere around a year from now, the UA's newest spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral and begin its long journey to rendezvous with an asteroid.

And to celebrate, the team behind the OSIRIS-REx mission is throwing a big party this weekend at downtown's Fox Theatre.

Bennuval—named for Bennu, the asteroid that OSIRIS-REx will be chasing through space—will be emcee'd by Tucson's own Geoff Notkin, star of the Science Channel's Meteorite Men show. The program will also feature OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the UA Lunar and Planetary Lab, as well as a display of meteorites and performances by avant-garde music project ChamberLab, acrobats Flam Chen and comedy troupe Tucson Improv Movement.

Lauretta calls the evening "a celebration of the unique creative spirit of Tucson."

It's also a chance for Tucsonans to catch up with the latest on OSIRIS-REx, a billion-dollar NASA mission that's scheduled to launch in September 2016. OSIRIS-REx will travel through space for about two years until it meets up with Bennu, photographs and maps the asteroid, and then slips up close enough to grab a sample and send it back to earth for further study.

Saturday's event comes as the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is nearly complete. Lauretta recently returned from the Lockheed-Martin facility outside of Denver, Colo., where technicians are assembling the robotic space lab.

Already attached are:

• The UA-designed OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (or OCAM), a three-camera unit that will serve as the eyes of the mission. OCAM will send back images so the asteroid can be mapped and researchers can determine the best spot to gather a sample.

• The OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer. Built by ASU, the OTES will use an infrared scanner to determine what minerals are on the surface of Bennu.

• The Sample Acquisition and Return Assembly (or SARA). SARA has both the TAGSAM arm that will reach out to grab the sample and the capsule that will rocket back to earth once the sample is captured.

• The OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (or OVIRS), from the Goddard Space Flight Center. The OVIRS will break down the light bouncing off Bennu into spectral components in order to study the chemistry of the asteroid to better determine an ideal spot to gather a sample.

Still to come:

• The Canadian Space Agency's OSIRIS-Rex Laser Altimeter (or OLA), which uses a laser to precisely measure distances and develop a topographical map of Bennu.

• The Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (or REXIS), which is being developed by an MIT and Harvard students, will capture X-rays that can identify different elements on Bennu's surface.

Once the final parts are attached, OSIRIS-REx will start the "shake and bake" testing phase at Lockheed-Martin lab sometime in mid-October.

First up is the "shake" portion, where engineers will belt the spacecraft with sound waves to ensure it can survive the vibrations of liftoff. Then comes the "bake" portion, where OSIRIS-REx is exposed to both extreme heat and cold.

"We drop the whole spacecraft into a giant vacuum chamber with a wall that represents the sun and a wall that represents cold, deep space, because it's not just the baking," Lauretta says. "One side is getting hit by this intense solar radiation, and the other side is seeing the ice-cold darkness of space."

Once OSIRIS-REx passes those tests, it will be shipped off to Kennedy Space Center in May 2016, where it will await the Atlas V rocket that will carry it into space. The 39-day launch window opens on Sept. 3, 2016. OSIRIS-Rex must get off the ground within that window in order to make its rendezvous with Bennu.

Lauretta, who has been working on the asteroid mission for nearly a dozen years, says it's "really exciting" to see the spacecraft coming together.

And he's proud to mention that so far, the mission is under budget by $8 million, which was returned to NASA for a future New Frontiers mission. "We are being very good stewards of the taxpayer's money," Lauretta says.

Lauretta hopes Bennuval will be become an annual event to celebrate the progress of the local spacecraft.

"OSIRIS-REx is is going out on this great journey," Lauretta says, "and everyone in Tucson should be cheering because it's a hometown kid made good."