NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, scheduled for launch in 2016.


An instrument for spaceflight that will collect samples of organic material from an asteroid as part of a new NASA mission will be built at Arizona State University.

“There are only four or five universities in the world that can do this sort of thing,” said Philip Christensen, the regents’ professor of geological sciences in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU.

Five flight instruments from previous partnerships between NASA and ASU were built in Santa Barbara, Calif., by an aerospace company, Christensen said. The project is a culmination of 20 years of work for ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

The NASA mission is called OSIRIS-REx, an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer, and is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program.

The goals of the mission are to return a sample of rock, soil and dust, map the asteroid’s global properties down to submillimeter scales, characterize this class of asteroid and measure a subtle effect of sunlight that can alter the orbits of an asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Arizona.

“The OSIRIS-REx mission is an important milestone for planetary science in the state of Arizona,” says Kip Hodges, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“I am very excited at the prospects of building closer research collaborations with our friends and colleagues at the University of Arizona.” NASA will launch the spacecraft in 2016 and it will rendezvous with the asteroid in November 2019. The instrument will spend 15 months studying the asteroid before heading back to Earth. The expected conclusion of the mission is in 2023.

The sample collected will be about 60 grams, or 2 ounces, of organic material.

Christensen said some theories of Earth’s development are that comets brought water and asteroids brought organic material, the building blocks of living things, to Earth. By studying asteroid samples — of some of the oldest material in the solar system — scientists are hoping to learn more about the origins of life on Earth.

Studying this asteroid is especially of interest to scientists because it has the highest probability of striking Earth: It has a 1 in 1,800 chance of impact with Earth in the year 2170, an ASU press release states.

Currently, ASU scientists are in the initial process of designing the instrument, which will take five years, Christensen said.

The instrument will be built in the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV on the ASU Tempe Campus. The building is currently being constructed, but when it is completed this time next year it will hold interactive displays, more than 160 labs, 60 faculty offices and a 250-seat auditorium, according to the university’s website.

The first floor will contain cleanrooms, or rooms with low amounts of environmental contaminants, that have large windows allowing visitors to see into the laboratories while the space instrument is being built, Christensen said.

“I hear people saying, “Really? ASU is doing this? I had no idea ASU was capable of this,’ ” Christensen said. “It gives people a sense of what ASU is capable of.

“It really puts ASU into an elite group and hopefully NASA will be willing to give ASU the opportunity to do this sort of thing again.”

The University of Arizona is also responsible for coordinating the science team, science operations, data archiving, education and public outreach, and building the visible-light camera suite. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colo., the Canadian Space Agency in Ottawa, Ontario, KinetX and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, are also involved with the project.

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