asteroid bennu still
NASA Zeros in on Asteroid Landing Site With Canadian Help

Could the history of the solar system eventually be unravelled in Canadian labs?

OSIRIS-REx mission uses Canadian technology to help build detailed map of Bennu, choose sample collection site

A 3-D flyover animation of the OSIRIS-REx primary sample site, Nightingale. NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/CSA/York University/MDA

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team has chosen its primary and backup sample collection sites on the asteroid Bennu — and Canadian technology helped collect data for the maps that led to the decision.

At a press conference December 12, representatives from NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer mission announced the primary “Nightingale” sample collection site and its backup, “Osprey.”

Launched in 2016, OSIRIS-REx has been surveying Bennu since December 2018. The Canadian Space Agency’s OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter — OLA — has been surveying Bennu’s surface, helping to build a detailed three-dimensional map of the asteroid.

Tim Haltigin is the senior mission scientist in planetary exploration for the Canadian Space Agency. Responsible for the overall operations of the OLA instrument, he said the last year of mapping has been in preparation for selecting the sample collection site on the surface.

“OLA’s been tremendously busy,” he said. “We’ve shot almost three billion individual laser measurements, so we’ve created a surface map of Bennu that has one point every seven centimetres.”

He said the next several months are going to be spent characterizing Nightingale and Osprey in even greater detail, with one point every two to three centimetres.

“It’s historic,” he said. “This is probably the best characterized surface of any planetary body in the solar system, and it was made with Canadian technology. So it’s really, really exciting.”

Noting that about 15 people are currently involved and hundreds have worked on OLA since 2011, Haltigin said the project is the result of “an awful lot of work by an awful lot of people.”

This is the first time Canada has been involved in an asteroid sample return mission. He also Haltigin pointed out OSIRIS-REx should collect a minimum of 60 grams of material, and the maximum the container can carry is two kilograms.

“This might not sound like an awful lot,” Haltigin said. “But you can think about it like, entire careers can be made on the analysis of single grains of this material.”

Canada’s involvement means they get 4 percent of the sample set to come back to Earth in September 2023, which will be available to generations of Canadian scientists after it arrives on Canuck soil in about early-to-mid 2024.

“Here, we’re going to be able to unravel the history of the solar system in labs in Canada,” Haltigin said. “The way I like to think about it — there’s kids in grade school and in kindergarten and people that haven’t been born yet that are going to be working on these samples.”

A NASA press release states the mission team will undertake further reconnaissance flights over Nightingale and Osprey, beginning in January and continuing through the spring. Once these flyovers are complete, the spacecraft will begin rehearsals for its first “touch-and-go” sample collection attempt, which is scheduled for August.

Get a Free Digital Issue