Published: Dec. 3, 2018 By

The space probe OSIRIS-REx arrives at the asteroid Bennu today after traveling more than 199 million km (124 million miles) across the blackness of space. It may be far from Earth, but it’s hardly on its own. Guiding it every step of the way has been a team of accomplished scientists and engineers with major University of Colorado Boulder connections.

“CU Boulder graduates have been involved since almost day one,” said Ryan Olds, guidance, navigation, and controls manager at Lockheed Martin Space.

Olds is a Colorado native with two CU Boulder degrees (AeroEngr BS’04, MS’09). He is one of 50+ people involved in day-to-day operations of the space probe, which, in addition to characterizing an asteroid that will come within less than a million miles of Earth in 2060, will also bring a sample, or regolith, of Bennu back to Earth to study.

Operations for the mission are run from Lockheed Martin’s complex in Littleton, Colorado. The team has 31 CU Boulder graduates, more than 50 percent of its makeup.

“It speaks to the curriculum at CU Boulder,” Olds said. “I don’t think I could’ve been more prepared to work here.”

That is a sentiment echoed by Patrick Haas (AeroEngr BS/MS’15), systems engineer for Lockheed Martin.

“The Senior Design capstone at CU Boulder is great because it’s literally the same as how we design spacecraft here. I’ve talked to people who graduated from other schools and they didn’t have that,” Haas said.

In addition to official Lockheed Martin employees, the operations team includes engineers from NASA Goddard and KinetX, Inc., a NASA contractor. In most space missions, the team members would do work at their employer’s offices and only meet face to face on occasion. For OSIRIS-REx, however, NASA wanted everyone in one place.

“Bennu is the smallest body ever orbited. Its diameter is only 500 m, so there are very weak gravitational forces. It was a realization for NASA that this mission was going to be much harder than others,” said Jason Leonard (AeroEngr MS’12, PhD’15), orbit determination lead at KinetX.

With so little gravity, even a small error could send the probe hurtling off into deep space. NASA knew precise and accurate communication between team members would be key, and the best way to ensure that was regular, in-person contact. As a result, Lockheed Martin agreed to provide a permanent co-located space to share with NASA and KinetX employees.

For Peter Antreasian (AeroEngr PhD’92), KinetX Nav Team Chief, the project was an opportunity to finally get back to Colorado after two decades at JPL in California. OSIRIS-REx also offered a chance to use his knowledge of thermal modeling, a subject with which CU Boulder had given him unique familiarity.

“I did my PhD thesis on thermal modeling of spacecraft and its effect on their motion,” Antreasian said. “The temperature changes on the probe’s surface where it faces toward and away from the sun impact its movement. It’s important on any mission, but even more so here because of Bennu’s low gravity.”

While OSIRIS-REx offered Antreasian a way to come back to the Rocky Mountains, the mission helped bring Samantha Rieger (AeroEngr MS’15, PhD’17, 2012 Smead Scholar) here for the first time.

“I interned at Lockheed Martin and got to be involved with OSIRIS-REx. It’s what led me to get a PhD. To do the kind of work I wanted to do professionally, I realized I needed one, and not only did CU Boulder have a program, they also have faculty working directly on this mission” Rieger said.

One of those faculty members, Dan Scheeres, distinguished professor of aerospace engineering, would become Rieger’s PhD advisor. Scheeres is serving as radio science lead for the mission, with Jay McMahon, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, as deputy lead. Radio science data will be used to determine the gravity and mass of the asteroid. Find out more about their role.

After OSIRIS-REx enters orbit around Bennu for the first time, it will begin taking photos, lots and lots of them. They will be transmitted back to Earth so the team can develop an extremely detailed three-dimensional map of the asteroid’s surface. The process will take months.

This part of the mission is critical to the next phase, when the probe will descend to within a few meters of Bennu’s surface to reach out and scoop up a sample.

“We’ll overlay all kinds of maps to determine the right location. It’s going to be a challenge to find a safe place to come down,” said Mike Moreau (AeroEngr MS’97, PhD’01), flight dynamics system manager for NASA Goddard.

For the mission to be successful, the site has to have loose material for OSIRIS-REx to pick up. If the area is rock-solid, the probe will not be able to get a sample. At the same time, if there are too many boulders, it could damage the retrieval mechanism. Essentially, they are looking for a place that is “just right.”

Call it the Goldilocks spot.

It is why Rieger considers the mission still in its early stages. Even though OSIRIS-REx has survived a two year journey across space, the hard work is only just beginning.

“This is mile one of the marathon. We’re still in the feel-good part,” Rieger said.

Do not mistake the sentiment for dread, this type of work is exactly what they all signed up for. As engineers, they want the most challenging and most interesting projects.

“I had job offers at JPL and other companies,” Leonard said. “But I pushed everyone I knew for this.”

The team members all acknowledge Colorado’s unique outdoor opportunities played at least some role in their job decisions. Among the group are avid skiers, climbers, and bike enthusiasts. Lockheed Martin’s campus literally backs up to Waterton Canyon, which is chock full of trails.

“The biggest thing for me is pure exploration, which we get to do here,” Haas said. “When I’m not here, I’m climbing mountains. This mission is the ultimate mountain.”