Command Central

Countdown to launch for NASA’s asteroid sample return mission

Doug Carroll, University Communications, Patrick H. Corkery, Lockheed Martin Space Systems photo

Dynasties are built by sustained success and their greatness is measured in decades. Some require no introduction: The New York Yankees. The Rockefellers. MGM. 

The UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, or LPL, falls into its own category as a science dynasty. It has had a hand in nearly every interplanetary spacecraft sent from Earth. Among its accomplishments since its founding in 1960:

The detection by LPL founder Gerard Kuiper of carbon dioxide on Mars and methane on Saturn’s moon Titan. The Kuiper belt — home to three recognized dwarf planets, including Pluto — bears his name.

The role played by then-director Michael Drake in the Cassini mission to explore Saturn, the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Phoenix Mars Lander mission.

The leadership by Peter Smith ’77 ’09 of the Phoenix mission, the first to be entirely controlled by a university.

The discovery by UA graduate student Lujendra Ojah of proof of liquid water on Mars, which made headlines around the world in September.

Yet another milestone for the lab will be the September 2016 launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, a highly anticipated event that will command international attention. 

The mission’s principal investigator, UA Planetary Sciences Professor Dante Lauretta ’93, is a Tucson native who was a NASA Space Grant intern during his undergraduate years at the University. He later worked as an assistant professor under Drake.

“My journey began back in 2004 when Michael Drake invited me to be the deputy principal investigator,” Lauretta says. “We worked together for seven years on proposals and had several rejected before we were accepted in 2010 for a concept study and in 2011 for flight.

“A lot of what we do is in his honor,” Lauretta says of Drake, who died of cancer in 2011. “He was really dedicated to the science and to student involvement and the inspiration of the next generation.”

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to rendezvous with near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018 and to return a sample of at least 2.1 ounces of surface material to Earth in 2023.

The spacecraft, now fully assembled, is in the final stages of environmental testing by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, where Lauretta spends half of each month. Testing was completed in March. In mid-May, an Air Force C-17 cargo plane will transport the spacecraft to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in preparation for launch.

Although the mission’s spacecraft operations will be based in Denver, its science operations will be housed at the UA’s Drake Building, whose interior is being remodeled to accommodate an additional 300 people for 17 months. The team involves scientists from the United States, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Italy, and France.

The launch is only the start of a seven-year rocket ride that represents career-defining work for Lauretta, a tribute to his mentor, and a star turn for LPL and the UA.

“This is history in the making,” Lauretta says. “We have a fantastic team that makes me proud every day. I’m passionate about my science and my team.”

LPL Director Tim Swindle, who knew Drake and works alongside Lauretta, says the lab is up to the challenge.

“LPL has a long history of patience in developing and flying instruments and missions, and OSIRIS-REx is a spectacular example of that.”