NASA has completed construction on its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which is due to be launched next year on a mission to an asteroid, and will be a first for the U.S. to return with samples from an asteroid.
NASA wrote in a statement that it is undergoing environmental testing at Lockheed Martin Space Systems facilities, near Denver, Colorado.
“OSIRIS-REx is entering environmental testing on schedule, on budget, and with schedule reserves,” Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said. “This allows us to have flexibility if any concerns arise during final launch preparations.”
The spacecraft will undergo a range of rigorous tests that will simulate the vacuum, vibration, and extreme temperatures it is expected to experience throughout the life of its mission.
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Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said: “This is an exciting time for the program as we now have a completed spacecraft and the team gets to test drive it, in a sense, before we actually fly it to asteroid Bennu.
“The environmental test phase is an important time in the mission as it will reveal any issues with the spacecraft and instruments, while here on Earth, before we send it into deep space.”
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will now specifically be tested for the harsh environment of space, which includes acoustical, separation, and deployment shock, vibration, as well as electromagnetic interference.
The simulation will conclude with a test where the spacecraft and its instruments will be placed in a vacuum chamber and cycled through the extreme hot and cold temperatures it will face during its journey to Bennu.
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Principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona Dante Lauretta said: “This milestone marks the end of the design and assembly stage. We now move on to test the entire flight system over the range of environmental conditions that will be experienced on the journey to Bennu and back.
‘This phase is critical to mission success, and I am confident that we have built the right system for the job.’
OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to be moved from Lockheed Martin’s facility to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center next May, where it will undergo final preparations for launch.
The launch date is in September 2016, when the spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu where it will get at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample to bring back to Earth for study.
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The OSIRIS-REx will return with the largest sample from space since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission, where it returned with 170 grams (6 ounces) of lunar soil in 1976.
Scientists are expecting Bennu may hold clues to the origin of the solar system, as well as the source of water and the organic molecules that may have made their way to Earth. OSIRIS-Rex is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, and is its third mission.