Young explorers can be scientists for a day at Children's Museum Tucson event

Daniela Tamasi, 9, a student at John E. White Elementary School in Tucson, created this drawing of OSIRIS-REx flying in space.

Daniela Tamasi, 9, a student at John E. White Elementary School in Tucson, created this drawing of OSIRIS-REx flying in space.

Corey Knox, deputy director, Arizona Astrobiology Center

Corey Knox, deputy director, Arizona Astrobiology Center

On Sunday, a dorm-fridge-sized capsule will hit the Earth's atmosphere at 17,000 mph before descending onto the Utah desert, suspended from a parachute. Inside: the first extraterrestrial material brought back by a NASA spacecraft since the Apollo moon program.

While spectacular, the landing will mark only the beginning of what many consider the real adventure: getting the sample from asteroid Bennu into a lab and uncovering its mysteries.

Thanks to a partnership between Children's Museum Tucson and students at the University of Arizona, little explorers and space enthusiasts are invited to get a taste of what it's like to be a planetary scientist for the day.

To celebrate the OSIRIS-REx sample capsule return, the museum will hold OSIRIS-REx Day on Sunday, offering free admission and special activities centering on the University-led asteroid sample return mission.

From 1-5 p.m., visitors will be able to watch the NASA video feed of the landing (on a loop) and participate in science activities, raffles and art projects. A model of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be on site as well. OSIRIS-REx Day will be facilitated by University astrobiology ambassadors, undergraduate students who major in astronomy, planetary science or related disciplines. They will guide little visitors with hands-on activities, share stories about the mission and space science in general, and answer questions. 

In one of the highlights of OSIRIS-REx Day, kids will get to collect and analyze their own "asteroid" sample, and even take it home in their own personal test tube. The activity, "Seeds of Life," was designed by Corey Knox, deputy director of the Arizona Astrobiology Center, a new University research and outreach center focusing on the study of life beyond Earth, under the Office of Research, Innovation & Impact.

Knox said she wanted to shine a light on the part of the OSIRIS-REx mission that has not yet begun but has been the driving factor behind the whole endeavor: deciphering the information that's locked in the gravel and dust collected from Bennu, which the mission's principal investigator, Regents Professor Dante Lauretta, has described as a "droplet of rock floating in space."

With "Seeds of Life," Knox's team invites young visitors to the museum to get a taste of why scientists are so excited about this mission. Getting pristine material from an asteroid – thought to be leftovers from the formation of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago – into the hands of experts who have the training and equipment to probe it down to the scale of individual atoms is what inspired the mission from its inception 20 years ago.

Scientists have been waiting for years to study pieces of Bennu in their labs to help tease out the details of vexing questions, including how life emerged on Earth, and whether asteroids could have potentially served as the delivery vehicles seeding the early Earth with the molecules that gave rise to life as we know it.

"The idea is to get kids to come and try out what the OSIRIS-REx scientists will be doing with the sample in the next phase of the discovery journey," Knox said. "Yes, we sent a spacecraft to Bennu and back, and that's cool and all, but now we are entering a new era of research. We want kids to know that they, too, can come to the U of A and actually be part of this huge new sort of investigation on what asteroids can tell us about the solar system and the origin of life."

Other activities include a large paper wall where children can fire up their creative minds and design their own planet, spacecraft or space object and add it to what will morph into a community "space mural" project over the course of the day. At another station, children can build their own asteroids, learn about the various shapes of asteroids and gather clues as to what they're made of.

To help young space enthusiasts appreciate the feat of landing the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule in what mission engineers refer to as the "landing ellipse" – the dedicated touch-down area on the Utah Test and Training Range – a model replica of the terrain will be set up outside at the museum entrance. There, kids can practice their capsule tossing skills with 3D-printed replica capsules tethered to a parachute. The real thing, according to NASA officials, is like hitting a bull's-eye with a dart across a basketball court. A wheel of fortune with prizes, posters and giveaways will round out the event, which may even feature surprise appearances by OSIRIS-REx scientists, depending on what happens during the landing, which is expected to be hectic for everybody involved.

According to Shesh Vinay, program coordinator for education and outreach at the Astrobiology Center, the initial idea for an inclusive and accessible event for the community, and particularly kids and their families, was sparked by a discussion with Tucson Mayor Regina Romero. She emphasized the   importance of involving the broader community in this historic event and celebrating Tucson and the University as a center of space exploration. The staff at the Children's Museum, particularly Events Coordinator Shelly Hawkins, helped envision and develop the event.

Vinay, a University alumnus, said he hopes the OSIRIS-REx Day at the museum will go beyond celebrating the successful landing of the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule, and draw young hearts and minds to scientific exploration, which is at the heart of the Astrobiology Center's mission.

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