Anticipation Builds for OSIRIS-REx Launch
The UA's leading-edge work in space exploration will come into sharp focus as final preparations are made for the September launch of NASA's asteroid sample return mission.

By Doug Carroll, University Relations – Communications
Jan. 27, 2016


The UA's Dante Lauretta first began work with his mentor, the late Michael Drake, on the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2004.
The UA's Dante Lauretta first began work with his mentor, the late Michael Drake, on the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2004. (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)

The UA-built camera suite, OCAMS, sits on a test bench that mimics its arrangement on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The three cameras that compose the instrument — MapCam (left), PolyCam and SamCam — are the eyes of the mission. They will map the asteroid Bennu, help choose a sample site and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft. (Photo: Symeon Platts/UA)

What does OSIRIS-REx stand for?

Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.

What do we hope to learn from the mission?

Clues to the origin of the solar system and the possibility of life beyond Earth. “The most fundamental questions we ask ourselves are: Where did we come from? And are we alone?” says the mission’s principal investigator, Dante Lauretta.

Where is a good place to learn more about OSIRIS-REx and follow the mission’s developments?

The best Internet sites are or

Dynasties are built by sustained success, which in turn creates a lasting reputation for excellence. Their greatness is measured in decades. They are not one-hit wonders; they are here today and here tomorrow.

Some require minimal introduction: The New York Yankees. The Rockefellers. MGM.

Of a lower public profile is the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, a dynasty in the exploration of that which lies beyond us. Few outside of Tucson and the planetary science community are aware that LPL has had a hand in nearly every interplanetary spacecraft sent from Earth. From its founding in 1960 by Gerard Kuiper to its growth into a research powerhouse under Michael Drake to the present day, LPL has had a steady stream of successes, including:

  • The detection by Kuiper of carbon dioxide on Mars and methane on Saturn’s moon Titan. The Kuiper belt, home to three dwarf planets, including Pluto, bears his name.
  • The role played by Drake in the Cassini mission to explore Saturn, the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Phoenix Mars Lander mission.
  • The leadership by Peter Smith of the Phoenix mission, the first to be entirely controlled by a university.
  • The discovery by UA graduate student Lujendra Ojah of proof of liquid water on Mars, which made headlines around the world in September.

The new year marks another milestone for the lab — and, by extension, the UA — with the scheduled September launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, a highly anticipated event that will command international attention from media and scientists. It is expected to be the UA’s biggest story of 2016.

The mission’s principal investigator, UA planetary sciences professor Dante Lauretta, is a Tucson native who was a NASA Space Grant intern during his undergraduate years at the University. He later worked as a young assistant professor under Drake’s tutelage, and he has a keen appreciation of what he has inherited.

"A lot of what we do is in his honor," Lauretta says of Drake, who died of cancer in 2011. "He was really dedicated to the science and to student involvement and the inspiration of the next generation.

"This (mission) establishes a range of new capabilities for the University of Arizona."

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to rendezvous with near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018 and to return a sample of at least 2.1 ounces of surface material to Earth in 2023.

If that seems like a long time to wait, you don’t know the half of it.

"My journey began back in 2004 when Michael Drake invited me to be the deputy principal investigator," Lauretta says. "We worked together for seven years on proposals and had several rejected before we were accepted in 2010 for a concept study and in 2011 for flight."

The mission is "building on a long legacy of successes in exploring the solar system by the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory," he says. "(LPL has) led the scientific exploration of every planet in the solar system. OSIRIS-REx is fortunate to have that expertise to build on."

The spacecraft, now fully assembled, is in the final stages of environmental testing by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, where Lauretta has been spending half of each month. Testing will be completed in March. In mid-May, an Air Force C-17 cargo plane will transport the spacecraft to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in preparation for launch.

Although the mission’s spacecraft operations will be based in Denver, its science operations will be housed at the UA’s Drake Building, whose interior is being remodeled to accommodate an additional 300 people for a period of about 17 months. The team involves scientists from the U.S., Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

The launch is only the start of a seven-year rocket ride that represents career-defining work for Lauretta, a tribute to his mentor, and a star turn for LPL and the UA.

"It’s an honor and a privilege to lead a program like this," Lauretta says. "This is history in the making. We have a fantastic team that makes me proud every day. I’m passionate about my science and my team."

LPL director Tim Swindle, who knew Drake and works alongside Lauretta, says the lab is up to the challenge — as it always has been.

"LPL has a long history of patience in developing and flying instruments and missions, and OSIRIS-REx is a spectacular example of that," Swindle said. "Mike Drake and Dante Lauretta began working on this mission a dozen years ago, and it will be at least seven more years before the samples return.

"The baton has passed to Dante as PI, and many other key positions have, or will, change personnel before it's all over. But it's a tribute to all of those people that this mission is running smoothly so far, and this year's launch will be one of the most exciting moments of the project."

UANews is exploring six stories to watch as 2016 begins. Previously in this series:

Health & Medicine: The asthma research of Dr. Fernando Martinez 

Big Data: The UA's expanded role in turning data into discovery

Humanities: In February, a visit from Shakespeare's touring First Folio

Environment: UA at the forefront on climate change 

Athletics: Rio Olympics present the ultimate goal for swimmers 


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Erin Morton

UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory