From over two million kilometers away, a powerful camera on NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will “see” the tiny asteroid Bennu for the first time, helping to guide the spacecraft to its destination. Once there, its versatile focus mechanism will transform the camera from a telescope to a microscope, enabling it to examine tiny rocks while only hundreds of meters from the asteroid’s surface.
This camera, called PolyCam, is part of an innovative suite of three cameras designed and built by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL). Together, these cameras will enable the OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return mission to map the asteroid Bennu, choose a sample site, and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft. The University of Arizona delivered the OSIRIS-REx CAMera Suite (OCAMS) instrument to Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado, today for integration onto the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.
“The OCAMS instrument’s three cameras, PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam, will be our mission’s eyes at Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona. “OCAMS will provide the imagery we need to complete our mission while the spacecraft is at the asteroid.”
The largest of the three cameras, PolyCam, is small telescope that will acquire the first images of Bennu from two million kilometers distance and provide high resolution imaging of the sample site. MapCam will search for satellites and outgassing plumes around Bennu, map the asteroid in color, and provide images to construct topographic maps. SamCam will document the sample acquisition event and the collected sample.
“The most important goal of these cameras is to maximize our ability to successfully return a sample,” said OCAMS instrument scientist Bashar Rizk. “Our mission requires a lot of activities during one trip – navigation, mapping, reconnaissance, sample site selection, and sampling. While we are there, we need the ability to continuously see what is happening around the asteroid in order to make real-time decisions.”
The OSIRIS-REx mission is scheduled to launch in September 2016 to study Bennu, a near-Earth and potentially hazardous asteroid. After rendezvousing with Bennu in 2018, the spacecraft will survey the asteroid, obtain a sample, and return it to Earth.
OSIRIS-REx is the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, and will return the largest sample from space since the Apollo lunar missions. Scientists expect that Bennu may hold clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of water and organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth. Bennu also has a relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century. OSIRIS-REx’s investigation will inform future efforts to develop a mission to mitigate an impact, should one be required.
“This is another major step in preparing for our mission,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “With the delivery of OCAMS to the spacecraft contractor, we will have our full complement of cameras and spectrometers,”
While SamCam and MapCam were made exclusively by LPL, PolyCam’s optics and structure were made through a joint program between LPL and the University of Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences. PolyCam’s unique focus mechanism is also the basis of LPL’s first patent application.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta is the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver is building the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama manages New Frontiers for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.