Rendezvous with an asteroid: ASU to build mineral survey instrument

May 26, 2011

A newly announced NASA mission to collect a sample of an asteroid and return it to Earth will include an instrument built at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). The ASU instrument will analyze long-wavelength infrared light emitted from the asteroid to map the minerals on its surface. The device is a modified version of the highly successful miniature infrared spectrometers carried on Spirit and Opportunity, NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers.

The new asteroid sample-return mission is called OSIRIS-REx, an acronym standing for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, and Regolith Explorer. The principal investigator for the mission is Michael Drake of the University of Arizona in Tucson, and the mission is part of NASA's New Frontiers program. OSIRIS-REx spacecraft with asteroid Download Full Image

The mission's goals are to return a sample of rocks, soil, and dust from a pristine carbonaceous asteroid, map the asteroid's global properties down to submillimeter scales, characterize this class of asteroid for comparison with meteorites, and measure a subtle effect of sunlight that can alter the orbits of asteroids.

"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."

The instrument to be built at ASU is the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer, or OTES for short. It will be the first complex electro-optical instrument for spaceflight to be built at ASU.

A first for ASU

"In the past, each of the five instruments we’ve built for NASA were built at an aerospace company in California," says Philip Christensen, instrument scientist for OTES. He is Regents' Professor of Geological Sciences in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "For the first time, a piece of complicated space hardware will be built on the ASU campus."

Christensen adds, "This is something we've been working toward for 15 years. It's is a major step forward for ASU — I can count on one hand the number of universities that can do this."

Greg Mehall is Project Engineer for OTES at ASU and has overseen the technical development of several previous ASU flight instruments. "We've worked hard over the past few years to create the infrastructure at ASU necessary to support such an endeavor," he says. "We recently developed two prototype flight instruments based on the Mars rover infrared spectrometers. They're representative prototypes for OTES."

The instrument also fits into a bigger picture at ASU. Hodges explains, "OTES demonstrates that SESE is now ready not just to operate instruments in space from the ASU campus, but to fabricate space-ready hardware in-house." In many ways, he says, "OTES is proof of the promise of SESE, an academic unit designed to integrate science and engineering research and education. We are very fortunate to work at a university that supports such a groundbreaking enterprise."

OTES will be built in cleanroom facilities in the new Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building (ISTB) 4, currently being constructed on the Tempe campus. "ISTB-4 is a remarkable building that will not only support advanced research by SESE and other academic and research units, but will also serve as a public showcase for scientific exploration," Hodges notes. "The OTES fabrication facility will be on the first floor of ISTB-4, in space designed for public viewing through high-bay windows. It will be fantastic to be able to use this state-of-the-art laboratory as a teaching tool."

Rendezvous in space

If all goes as planned, OSIRIS-REx will launch in September 2016 and rendezvous with asteroid 1999 RQ36 in November 2019. It will spend up to 15 months surveying the asteroid's mineralogy with OTES and another spectrometer working at shorter visible and infrared wavelengths. A suite of three visible-light cameras and a laser altimeter will complete the picture of the asteroid.

"The infrared is great for identifying minerals," says Christensen. "OTES will map the composition of the asteroid in order to identify the best region to sample."

Mission scientists will then select a target area. The spacecraft will approach the asteroid, touch it very briefly, and collect at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of dust, soil, and rubble from its surface. With sample collection completed, OSIRIS-REx will cruise back to Earth and use a separable return capsule to deliver the sample to a landing site in Utah in September 2023. After flying past Earth, the spacecraft should be available to survey other asteroids, although it will not be able to collect samples from them.

Little push here, little nudge there

Asteroid 1999 RQ36 has an unmemorable designation, but it's a space rock scientists want to keep a close eye on. With an orbit that brings it inside Earth's orbit, it is the most accessible asteroid rich in organic materials from the early solar system. RQ36 is about 575 meters (1,900 feet) wide, roughly spherical, and spins once every 4.3 hours. Reflecting only three percent of the sunlight falling on it, the asteroid is about as dark as a charcoal briquette.

Many asteroids have similar properties; what gives RQ36 special interest is that it comes within 450,000 kilometers (280,000 miles) of Earth. It's also the asteroid with the highest known probability of hitting Earth — there's about one chance in 1,800 for an impact in the year 2170.

As part of its mission goals, OSIRIS-REx will seek to measure the Yarkovsky effect, a weak but steady thrust produced by sunlight when it falls on a spinning object. The effect arises from the fact that, all else being equal, sunlit ground is warmer in the afternoon than the same ground is in the morning, because sunlight has had longer to heat it.

This means that the afternoon side of a rotating object in space radiates more heat than the morning side, thus producing an extremely small thrust. For objects as massive as planets, the effect is negligible. But for small bodies like RQ36 the effect could change its orbit. OSIRIS-REx will help scientists assess how fast RQ36's orbit is changing and gather information useful for future generations, which may have to take action to deflect the asteroid.

New frontiers

For his part, Christensen is enjoying the change in scientific targets. "After spending most of my career studying Mars, it's going to be exciting and challenging for me and my research group to focus our attention to the origin and history of asteroids."

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission chosen in NASA's New Frontiers program for unmanned planetary missions. Its budget (not counting lauch vehicle) is approximately $800 million, of which the OTES budget is about $17 million.

OSIRIS-REx is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, Maryland) and the University of Arizona (Tucson). 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. NASA Goddard is building the visible near-infrared spectrometer. Lockheed Martin Space Systems (Littleton, Colorado) is building the spacecraft bus, sampling system, and sample return capsule, plus handling mission operations. The Canadian Space Agency (Ottawa, Ontario) is building the laser altimeter, KinetX is providing the spacecraft navigation, and NASA's Johnson Space Center (Houston, Texas) will curate the samples.

Robert Burnham

Science writer, School of Earth and Space Exploration


New faculty books: From nanotechnology to creative nonfiction

May 26, 2011

What if, in the future, humans are able to snap in a new knee when the old one begins malfunctioning? Or have legal access to performance-boosting hormones?

And how did slaves in the Antebellum Upper South protect their family members from the auction block? Download Full Image

These questions are among those answered in new books written or edited by ASU faculty members:

“The Techno-Human Condition,” by Brad Allenby, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Dan Sarewitz, co-director, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes; associate director, Center for Nanotechnology in Society; professor of science and society; professor, School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability.

In this latest version of humanity, we are equipped with a fully re-engineered immune system; the latest set of cultural assumptions about gender, ethnicity, and sexuality; and a suite of customized enhancements, including artificial joints, neurochemical mood modulators, and performance-boosting hormones.

Allenby and Sarewitz explore what it means to be human in an era of incomprehensible technological complexity and change. They argue that if we are to have any prospect of managing that complexity, we will need to escape the shackles of current assumptions about rationality, progress, and certainty, even as we maintain a commitment to fundamental human values.

“Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Society,” edited by David Guston, co-director, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes; director, Center for Nanotechnology in Society; professor of political science.

The encyclopedia offers accessible descriptions of some of the key technical achievements of nanoscience along with its history and prospects. Rather than a technical primer, this volume instead focuses on the efforts of governments around the world to fund nanoscience research and to tap its potential for economic development as well as to assess how best to regulate a new technology for the environmental, occupational, and consumer health and safety issues related to the field.

Written by noted scholars and practitioners from around the globe, these two volumes offer nearly 500 entries describing the societal aspects of nanoscience and nanotechnology.

“Nanotechnology and the Challenges of Equity, Equality and Development” (Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society Volume 2), edited by Jameson Wetmore, assistant professor, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and Susan Cozzens, Georgia Tech.

Nanotechnology is enabling applications in materials, microelectronics, health, and agriculture, which are projected to create the next big shift in production, comparable to the industrial revolution. Such major shifts always co-evolve with social relationships. This book focuses on how nanotechnologies might affect equity/equality in global society.

Nanotechnologies are likely to open gaps by gender, ethnicity, race, and ability status, as well as between developed and developing countries, unless steps are taken now to create a different outcome. Organizations need to change their practices, and cultural ideas must be broadened if currently disadvantaged groups are to have a more equal position in nano-society rather than a more disadvantaged one.

“Between Politics and Science” (Chinese edition) by David Guston, director, Center for Nanotechnology in Society; co-director, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcome; professor of political science.

This book combines political-economic, sociological and historical approaches to provide a coherent framework for analyzing the changing relationship between politics and science in the United States. Fundamental to this relationship are problems of delegation, especially the integrity and productivity of sponsored research: politicians must see that research is conducted with integrity and productivity, and scientists must be able to show it.

“Twelve Breaths a Minute: End of Life Essays,” edited by Lee Gutkind, professor, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.

“Twelve Breaths a Minute,” the latest collaboration between SMU Press and the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, with the support of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, features 23 compelling personal narratives that examine the way we as a society care for the dying. A poet, a former hospice worker, reflects on death’s mysteries; a son wanders the halls of his mother’s nursing home, lost in the small absurdities of the place; a grief counselor struggles with losing his own grandfather; a medical intern traces the origins of time and the quality of our final days; a mother anguishes over her decision to turn off her daughter’s life support and allow her organs to be harvested; and an emergency dispatcher tries to quantify what a stranger’s death should mean.

“The Impact of Demographics on Health and Healthcare: Race, Ethnicity and other Social Factors,” edited by Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld, professor of sociology, School of Social and Family Dynamics. (Volume 28, Research in the Sociology of Health Care, Emerald Press, Great Britain.)

This volume focuses on differences in health and health care as linked to important social factors. After a section that reviews basic material, the second section focuses on racial disparities in knowledge of hepatitis C virus, health services received by people and issues of health seeking behaviors and health information seeking behaviors. Other sections focus on geographic and community factors in health services, and issues linked to gender and to age and the life course.

“Medicare/Health Care,” by Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld (Greenwood Press/ABC-Clio (Westport, CN), 2011. 

Medicare is the best known federally funded program that provides health insurance to large numbers of Americans, especially those 65 and over. The book provides historical information about the program, as well as covering some of the current major issues in Medicare such as the prescription drug coverage program, the lack of long-term care coverage, the current demographic crisis linked to funding concerns and a discussion of changes linked to the 2010 health care reform efforts in the United States.

“Helping Young Children Learn Language and Literacy: Birth – Kindergarten,” by James Christie, professor of social and family dynamics, Carol Vukelich and Billie Enz. (2012) 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson.

“Teaching Language and Literacy: Preschool Through the Elementary Grades,” by James Christie, professor of social and family dynamics, Carol Vukelich and Billie Enz. (2011 (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

“Helping Young Children” focuses on language and literacy instruction at the preschool and kindergarten levels, whereas “Teaching Language” has a broader scope and includes coverage of the elementary grade language arts. Both texts integrate a constructivist/emergent literacy perspective with “science-based” instructional practices that have proved successful in supporting children’s reading, writing, and speaking development. Extensive coverage is given to meeting the instructional needs of English language learners and children with special needs.

"The Portrayal of Social Catastrophe in the German-Language Films of Austrian Filmmaker Michael Haneke," by Dennis Eugene Russell, associate professor of journalism and mass communication.

Since 1989, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has earned the reputation of one of the most provocative and subversive auteurs in international cinema. His cinema represents a nightmare vision of Western civilization teetering on the brink of catastrophe while awash in the excesses of advanced capitalism, obsessive consumerism and media/technological saturation. Calling upon postmodern theory and existential philosophy, Russell examines Haneke's attempt to locate the root causes of a pervasive moral and psychological deterioration afflicting Western culture. This is not activist filmmaking in the sense of evoking change, but instead a radical cinema propelled by Haneke's aggressive methods of cultural vivisection.

“Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South,” by Calvin Schermerhorn, assistant professor of history.

Once a sleepy plantation society, the region from the Chesapeake Bay to coastal North Carolina modernized and diversified its economy in the years before the Civil War. Central to this industrializing process was slave labor. “Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom” tells the story of how slaves seized opportunities in these conditions to protect their family members from the auction block.

Schermerhorn argues that the African American family provided the key to economic growth in the antebellum Chesapeake. To maximize profits in the burgeoning regional industries, slaveholders needed to employ or hire out a healthy supply of strong slaves, which tended to scatter family members. From each generation, they also selected the young, fit, and fertile for sale or removal to the cotton South. Conscious of this pattern, the enslaved were sometimes able to negotiate mutually beneficial labor terms—to save their families despite that new economy.

"Human Capital: The Untapped Treasure," by Gerald D. Polesky, faculty associate in the Technological Entrepreneurship Innovation & Management Department.

Polesky illustrates how companies can increase employee productivity and morale by effectively utilizing human assets. It lays out a path that will enable businesses and managers to overcome today's monumental hurdles and exemplifies how employee productivity and morale can be increased by effectively utilizing their human assets. The book was nominated for the 2010 Axiom Business book Award and the 2010 Benjamin Franklin award.