UA Planetary Scientists, Japanese to Trade Hard-Rock Stories

In the fall of 2016, an Atlas-V rocket will pierce through the atmosphere and leave Earth’s gravity behind. After the engine has burned up its fuel, the nose faring will open to release its payload, the space probe OSIRIS-REx.

Silently, the robotic explorer will slip into the cold void of space, unfold its solar panels and embark on a two-year journey into deep space to find its destination: Bennu, a slowly rotating space rock about a third of a mile in diameter cruising around the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars.

On its lonely trip to the asteroid, OSIRIS-REx won’t be alone. Hundreds of millions of miles away, another automated explorer sent from Earth will be hovering above the surface of 1999JU3, another space rock of similar size and type as Bennu. That spacecraft, named Hayabusa2, is set to launch in November this year.

The University of Arizona leads the OSIRIS-REx mission under a contract with NASA, while Hayabusa2 is led by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, known as ISAS and JAXA.

Both missions are designed to bring back samples from their targets, primitive carbonaceous asteroids that are thought to contain organic matter and water and hold valuable clues to the formation of the solar system and the origin of life-seeding molecules on Earth.

“Both spacecraft will venture into far-away and unknown territory, and for the most part, they will be on their own,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission and professor in the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

“But when you’re out there, it’s good to know you’re not alone and you can depend on each other.”

On Oct. 3, a team led by ISAS Director General Saku Tsuneta visited the UA to explore opportunities for collaboration on asteroid sample return missions led by Japan and the United States. The meeting included Masaki Fujimoto, ISAS director of solar system exploration, as well as Shogo Tachibana and Harold Connolly, the scientists who oversee the sampling process and curation for Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx, respectively.

During a meeting with UA President Ann Weaver Hart, representatives of both space missions discussed opportunities to engage students from many different backgrounds – not only in the STEM fields but also in business, the arts and communications – as well as the general public.

“Both NASA and JAXA share a keen interest in opportunities for future scientific collaboration,” Lauretta said. “It’s a great opportunity because operations for both missions will go on simultaneously.”

JAXA’s Hayabusa2 is the successor of the Hayabusa mission, the first asteroid sample return mission ever undertaken. Hayabusa touched down on asteroid Itokawa in late 2005. Despite a few nail-biting moments caused by unforeseen events at the asteroid that were brilliantly solved by engineers and scientists, Hayabusa managed to capture sample particles and return them to Earth in 2010.

“I’m a huge fan of the Hayabusa mission,” Lauretta said.

“We learned an enormous amount from that mission -it changed our whole perspective on OSIRIS-REx. Our Japanese colleagues helped themselves to plan Hayabusa2 and to reduce the risk and the challenges of that mission, but they helped us without even realizing it. We studied their mission intently, we studied their asteroid, their processes and procedures, we took away the best, and we improved areas where we thought we could reduce risk even more. In many ways it fed into the success of our mission, and I’m very thankful for the pioneering work that they did.”

In addition to hosting members of each other’s mission teams, NASA and JAXA plan to exchange fractions of the samples collected by the two spacecraft.

“Our scientific objectives are quite similar,” Tachibana said.

“We want to get samples that record a long history of our solar system, from its beginning to its present state. At the same time, we hope our target asteroids have some degree of difference from each other. Being able to make a comparison between the two and obtaining two samples at about the same time are quite important in learning about the processes in the solar system. We want to know: What is common? What is unusual? What is unique?”

“I think this is just the starting point,” Tsuneta said.

“We have a very close collaboration between Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx, both huge undertakings. In this economical situation, one country cannot do everything usually. This meeting is not a single event, it is the basis for future collaboration.”

According to Lauretta, the two missions have enjoyed a shared sense of adventure rather than a rivalry.

“I celebrate every mission that goes out into deep space to explore the solar system,” he said. “Space is a really big place. There is more than enough room for everybody.”

Lauretta pointed out that the scientific return from two missions is more than the two combined.

“It’s quadruple or higher, because all of a sudden, you get to do cross-comparisons and intellectual activities that wouldn’t be permitted with a single mission,” he said. “Working together makes both our missions better.”

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