Probe returning to Earth with asteroid rocks, space dust
Sailing across space, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is preparing for its most important challenge and a University of Colorado Boulder graduate has a major role in ensuring the mission’s success.
Mike Moreau (AeroEngr MS’97, PhD’01) is NASA’s Goddard’s sample recovery manager for the mission that has seen an Earth-built probe fly more than 600 million miles to the asteroid Bennu, scoop up a sample of rocks, dust, and regolith from the surface, and fly back home.
OSIRIS-REx is now approaching that critical final phase – returning to Earth and releasing the recovery capsule to land safely in the Utah desert.
“We started preparing for the recovery last fall, reviewing all of our plans. In early 2023 we began training the recovery team, going into the field to practice, and in August completed a full dress rehearsal of the recovery in the Utah desert. There are scientists all over the world waiting for the moment when we will open that sample canister,” Moreau said.
Construction to Completion
It is a culmination of work for Moreau and his team. He took a job on the mission more than a decade ago when the probe was still under construction at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Canyon complex in Littleton, Colorado.
“When I joined in 2013 the mission’s principal investigator asked if I would commit to staying on until the sample came home,” Moreau said. “That was ten years in the future. I said I didn’t know, but the time has gone by very fast. I just got immersed in solving all these substantial problems. I have a really great team, a great group of people, which has made working on this challenging project truly rewarding.”
The work is a far cry from Moreau’s childhood on a dairy farm in rural Vermont.
“When I went to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I majored in mechanical engineering because growing up on a farm, you’re always MacGyvering solutions to problems and I saw I was mechanically inclined,” he said.
A Future in Space
After his undergrad at the University of Vermont, Moreau was still seeking direction. He landed an internship at NASA and discovered it held the answer he had been seeking.
“It opened my eyes to people working in space. There’s not a lot of people doing that in Vermont. So I started looking at grad schools that would be a good fit for someone without aerospace experience and CU Boulder is really great for that because the aerospace department is so interdisciplinary,” he said.
He earned his master’s and PhD in aerospace engineering sciences here and was hired full time at NASA Goddard.
“My education was focused in the department's Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research, and there’s very specific navigation systems training you get at CCAR. Working at NASA they need that on all these missions and I fit right in,” Moreau said.
Since OSIRIS-REx was built in Colorado, it is perhaps no surprise a significant number of CU Boulder graduates have been part of the project, with more than two dozen alumni serving in various capacities at NASA and contractors Lockheed Martin and KinetX, Inc.
Moreau has held numerous roles at NASA Goddard, primarily in guidance, navigation, and controls, before joining OSIRIS-REx, initially as the navigation team lead, directing a team of scientists and engineers on trajectory design, optical navigation, and camera systems for the probe.
“There are so many incredible people who are part of this team. If you have a great group of people, there’s no problem you can’t solve, and we’ve definitely encountered challenges,” he said. “When we arrived at Bennu one of our first surprises was the asteroidwas ejecting small rocks from the surface, and we weren’t sure at first if the spacecraft was at risk. That was an amazing scientific discovery, and a total surprise. But no matter what it threw at us we figured it out.”
The spacecraft’s sample capsule will reenter Earth’s atmosphere on Sept. 24, 2023. The circular container is 32” in diameter and 20” tall – roughly the size of a tire. It will hit speeds of 27,000 mph as it speeds through the atmosphere over the American West before a series of parachutes deploy to bring it to a safe landing on a Department of Defense test range in Utah.
“It will be really amazing to see that sample,” Moreau said.
Only about 25 percent of the sample will be released for scientific analysis by the mission team. Moreau said the rest will be distributed to international partners or archived by NASA’s Johnson Space Center for study by other scientist now and in the future.
“It’s being archived so your kids or grandkids can write a proposal to NASA for it in 25 years to do science we don’t even know about today. It’s really amazing and very well planned,” he said.
Although the sample capsule is coming back to Earth, the rest of the OSIRIS-REx probe will remain in space, providing an extended mission opportunity for new scientific research of the asteroid Apophis, which will pass by Earth on Apr. 13, 2029.
“OSIRIS-REx wasn’t designed for this new mission, but Apophis will have a really close flyby of Earth on that day at just 30,000 km in altitude. People in some parts of the world will be able to see it with the naked eye; it’s a once in a millennium event. The probe will follow it and get very close to the asteroid to study it in detail.”
Although many of the OSIRIS-REx team engineers and scientists will migrate to other projects after the sample returns, Moreau is staying for the extended mission.
“It presents new challenges,” Moreau said. “I’m very proud of the work we’ve done. Of all the things I could be working on, to be doing something so exciting, I’m very fortunate.”
NASA plans to broadcast the landing and recovery live on NASA Television between 8-11 a.m. MDT on Sept. 24.