A UA-led telescope atop of Mount Graham has captured the first glimpse of an asteroid-bound spacecraft since its launch in September 2016.
The Large Binocular Telescope Observatory, an international collaboration led by the University of Arizona, saw the OSIRIS-REx on the night of Sept. 1. The spacecraft is making its way back toward Earth until a gravity assist Sept. 22 will change its trajectory and set it on a straight shot to its target — the asteroid Bennu.
Once at Bennu, it is to retrieve a sample of the asteroid and return to Earth by 2023. Planetary scientists will study the material from the formation of the solar system that is preserved in asteroids.
The spacecraft’s path around Earth has been plotted out. It includes a dip below the layer of orbiting satellites, about 11,000 miles above Earth’s surface. “It’s that close,” said Erin Morton, communications lead for the mission.
A day before swinging around Earth, the team will get a warning if, in the unlikely chance, a satellite is on course to cross the path of OSIRIS-REx. If that happens, there’s a plan to make a small maneuver to correct the trajectory.
The camera and all science instruments will be turned on after it safely makes its way around Earth, and OSIRIS-REx will turn around to snap a picture of the receding planet.
The sighting of OSIRIS-REx comes after the Frye Fire and the subsequent monsoon season forced a 2½-month closure of the telescope’s dome. The wildfire that burned more than 48,000 acres this summer came within 50 feet of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope also on Mt. Graham, and threatened the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope and the LBTO.
“Getting to see the spacecraft was super exciting and to know we are going to start doing our purpose,” Morton said.
For the first time, everyone from the science and instrument teams will be packed into OSIRIS-REx headquarters over the next two weeks, busily siphoning down the data and analyzing it, Morton said.
Things won’t be that busy again until next August, when OSIRIS-REx finally reaches Bennu.