Oxford and OSIRIS-REx

23 October 2020

OSIRIS-REx getting a sample from asteroid Bennu

A team of researchers from Oxford’s Department of Physics is celebrating after what looks to have been a successful sample collection for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. The team closely tracked the probe as it made contact with asteroid Bennu having worked as part of the mission since 2012.

The Oxford group worked with the OSIRIS-REx mission to develop a library of laboratory infrared spectra to help map out possible sample sites on Bennu; the OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator is Professor Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, and the mission’s Spectroscopy Working Group is led by Dr Vicky Hamilton at the South West Research Institute.

‘Working with the mission team, and supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Leverhulme Trust, we have been measuring the thermal infrared spectra of a wide range of mineral and meteorite samples that are similar to what we expected Bennu to be like,’ explains Professor Neil Bowles who heads up the group. ‘Using custom, specialist facilities at the Department of Physics in Oxford, we have been working under simulated asteroid conditions – in a vacuum, cold environment and heating with a visible lamp. Our study and analysis of the mineralogical and thermal emission spectral maps and local spectral information has played a key role in the OSIRIS-REx sample return mission.’

Bennu is believed to be a primitive asteroid and so, hopefully, will give scientists the chance to examine an object that may record the earliest history of our solar system.

‘We are now waiting to find out just how much sample has been collected and we should have an idea in a few days,’ continues Professor Bowles. ‘The sample itself is due back on Earth in September 2023 and our hope is to be involved in analysing the sample once returned so that we can compare measurements of the sample spectra in the laboratory with spectra measured at the asteroid itself.

‘It is an extraordinary privilege to be part of this mission and team and we will be waiting anxiously to hear more over the next few days as we hope to find out more about the estimated mass of collected sample.’

The team in Oxford comprises Professor Neil Bowles, Dr Ian Thomas (now BIRA-IASB, Belgium), Professor Kerri Donaldson Hanna (research fellow and now at UCF, Florida), Dr Katherine Shirley, Dr Tris Warren, Helena Bates (a joint student with the Natural History Museum in London) and Eloïse Brown. Technical support for the group’s custom spectroscopy chambers was by Jon Temple and Andy Clack with design work by Simon Calcutt.

Image credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona