2 Tucson-based projects are closer to probing the universe

2014-04-11T00:00:00Z 2 Tucson-based projects are closer to probing the universeBy Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Two Tucson-based space science projects are moving from design to construction.

OSIRIS-REx, the asteroid sampling mission being led by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, has been cleared by NASA to begin building a spacecraft, flight instruments, ground system and launch support facilities.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope has passed its design review. Money for construction is in this year’s federal budget and a July date has been set for construction, pending final approval by the National Science Board in early May.

For OSIRIS-REx, NASA’s announcement Thursday means “we now have the go-ahead to build the spacecraft,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the NASA New Frontiers mission.

Lauretta, a professor at LPL, recently led his team in a critical design review — eight days of presentations to NASA and outside experts at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colo.

“We had an outstanding review. We’re in great shape,” Lauretta said.

The $1 billion mission will launch during a 39-day window that begins Sept. 4, 2016.

It will rendezvous in October 2018 with an asteroid that was named Bennu in a contest run by the mission.

The spacecraft will spend up to 500 days orbiting and observing the asteroid, using instruments being built across the globe, including a camera suite being built in Tucson at the Michael J. Drake building near campus, the facility used by the Lunar and Planetary Lab to manage NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission.

The mission has ramped up to peak employment, said Lauretta, with 400 employees across the globe, including 83 professionals and 55 students in Tucson, where the suite of cameras and the Science Processing Operations Center are being built.

About $200 million of the UA’s $800 million NASA contract will be spent in Arizona, said Lauretta.

Arizona State University is building a thermal emission spectrometer for the mission, and KinetX of Tempe is developing navigation systems for the spacecraft.

Employment will decline after the instruments are built and will ramp up again to about 100 in Tucson as the spacecraft approaches Bennu in 2018, Lauretta said.

After locating a suitable site on Bennu for collecting a sample, the spacecraft will use a telescoping collector arm to snag a sample of at least 60 grams to return to Earth in a capsule, set to land in Utah in September 2023.

Lauretta, who has spent his career studying asteroids and meteorites, said the sample of the carbonaceous Bennu is a “time capsule” of the early universe and could contain amino acids and other precursors of life on Earth.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST, will be searching much more deeply in space but will do so from the ground.

Set to be built on a mountaintop in Chile, the LSST promises the widest, fastest and deepest view of the universe ever imaged by a telescope.

Victor Krabbendam, the LSST project manager, said $27.5 million to begin construction is in this year’s federal budget, and $80 million is proposed by President Obama for next year.

The project passed its design review in December before a panel convened by the National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation, principal funding agency for the telescope.

Approval by that board in May would mean a quick start to construction, said Krabbendam.

“There are no worries about our being ready. We’ve been working hard with the NSF to make sure everything is in place and ready to go,” he said.

While the telescope will be on a mountaintop in Chile, its headquarters will be in Tucson.

“In Tucson, we currently have around 25 people working on LSST, and we’ll have up to 50 people by the end of the first year of activity.”

Krabbendam said he expects the project office to remain in Tucson during the telescope’s decade of operation, beginning in 2022.

The LSST will spend 10 years photographing the sky with light fed into the world’s largest CCD-camera from a revolutionary 8.4-meter mirror, created at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, which contains both the primary and tertiary mirrors on the same surface.

During its decade of operation, the LSST will produce an astounding set of data that can be mined by astronomers to find exotic objects, potentially hazardous asteroids and clues to the dark matter and dark energy that are believed to be causing the acceleration of the universe’s expansion.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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