SNC Components Contribute to NASA's OSIRIS-REx Mission
October 20, 2020
Later today, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will take samples from the asteroid, Bennu, and prepare them for a historic return mission to Earth. NASA calls it one of the most ambitious space missions ever attempted. Scientists are hoping the samples will provide more clues about the building blocks of life, which may have been delivered to Earth by asteroids like this. Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid whose surface material may actually have information on the earliest beginnings of our solar system; some of its mineral fragments could even be older than the solar system itself. NASA says analyzing a sample from Bennu could help scientists better understand the role asteroids may have played in contributing to life on Earth.
OSIRIS-REx launched in September 2016 and arrived at the asteroid in December 2018. This month, it will touch the surface of Bennu to take samples. The spacecraft and its samples are expected to return to Earth in September 2023.
While OSIRIS-REx is on its journey, it needs to stay powered. Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) provided two solar array two axis gimbals (SATAG) which mount and position the arrays for the spacecraft. The SATAGs are a vital piece to OSIRIS-REx’s power supply system. We spoke with SNC mechanical engineer, Tim U., who worked on the components SNC provided for the mission. He tells us these components allow the solar panels to move to different positions during various phases of flight. “The spacecraft needs to be able to change the solar array orientation used during its cruise phase to allow for approach and sample collection on Bennu.”
OSIRIS-REx is a seven year mission, and SNC started working on its components in November 2013. They had to undergo extensive qualification and life testing to ensure they’d be successful during the mission. SNC engineers simulated the environment the spacecraft would be traveling through and performed functional testing to validate the design far beyond what’s expected during OSIRIS-REx’s seven years in space. SNC spent nearly a year working on the gimbals before delivering them to NASA.
Tim says seeing positive updates on the mission is one of the most rewarding aspects of his career. “It’s always great to hear when one of the missions we contributed to is succeeding, but it’s particularly satisfying when the team’s hard work is helping enable something historic like NASA’s first ever sample return from an asteroid.”
Once samples return to Earth, OSIRIS-REx scientists will study just a quarter of them. The rest will be made available to scientists worldwide, and saved for future scientists who may use techniques that may not exist yet.
Finally, we asked Tim why space exploration is so important to him, and his answer echoes the mission of OSIRIS-REx itself, “every mission that extends and builds upon our collective body of knowledge is an integral piece of the story of human advancement. We, as a community, are routinely discovering things that humankind had previously never known. It’s exciting that our work at SNC is a part of that legacy of exploration.”