Professor Part of NASA Launch Team to Retrieve Asteroid Sample

The work of a UT professor will be instrumental in a new NASA mission that launches this week to bring an asteroid sample back to Earth that could help scientists better understand the early solar system.

Joshua_EmeryJoshua Emery, the Lawrence A. Taylor Associate Professor of Planetary Science, will be on hand when OSIRIS-REx launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday. The spacecraft will orbit the sun for a year and then use Earth’s gravitational field to redirect to the asteroid Bennu, which it will reach in August 2018.

OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource, Identification, Security—Regolith Explorer) is the first US mission to collect a sample of an asteroid and return it to Earth for study.

Emery helped develop the goals and measurement requirements around which the mission has been designed. He leads a science team subgroup, the thermal analysis working group, that will examine measurements of heat emitted by the surface at different times of the day. This will allow them to interpret physical properties of the surface. They will also measure surface temperatures to ensure that the spacecraft does not overheat as it gets close to the dark and hot asteroid surface.

This is Emery’s first spacecraft mission, although he has partnered with NASA before to observe the target asteroid Bennu with the Spitzer Space Telescope, which detects infrared light. Through that work, he concluded that the Bennu surface was covered in sand-to-pebble-sized rocks. The information is important for the OSIRIS-REx mission because its sampling device can pick up only rocks smaller than four centimeters.

The OSIRIS-REx mission “has been a lot of fun from the beginning,” said Emery, who joined the science team in 2010. “It has been an absolutely fabulous group of scientists to work with. We still have a lot of work to do over the next two years to make sure that our data analysis software is ready for the remote sensing data we get, so that we can choose a good sample site.”

He added, “The prospect of being part of a team that will see a whole new world for the first time is the whole reason I went into planetary science, and I can’t wait.”

Joining Emery at the launch will be his research group, comprising six graduate students and two undergraduate students, as well as Devon Burr, associate professor of planetary science, Harry “Hap” McSween, professor emeritus of planetary geoscience, Molly McCanta, associate professor of planetary science, and Brad Thompson, research associate professor of planetary science.

Once the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft returns the asteroid sample to Earth, analyzing it will help scientists understand the early solar system and the dangers and resources of near-Earth space.

“Bennu and asteroids like it are windows into the past—the time when the planets were first forming, 4.56 billion years ago,” Emery said.

Exposing the samples to current analysis techniques and those to be invented in the future will teach scientists more about how planets formed and the material from which they formed, he said. It also will help them better understand how asteroids might impact Earth in a few hundred years.

“We are particularly excited to learn from these samples how complex organic materials can form completely without the influence of life in space, and how they could have influenced the origin of life on Earth as objects like Bennu rained down on Earth shortly after it formed,” Emery said.

 

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)