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LOGAN — One of NASA's most exciting space missions in the next few years will give Utah a starring role.
Utahns are building vital parts of the spacecraft and will have a front-row seat when it comes home, carrying pieces of an asteroid.
The robotic spacecraft will launch in 2016 for a roundtrip of almost a billion miles on mission OSIRIS-REx. Its destination is an asteroid called Bennu.
"As the spacecraft approaches the asteroid, it will take pictures that scientists will use to study the geology of the asteroid,” said Jed Hancock, director of civil space at the USU Space Dynamics Laboratory.
The eyes of OSIRIS-REx are taking shape now at Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory. They're making electronic detector assemblies for cameras built by the University of Arizona to convert light into images scientists will be studying for years.
"What they're looking for are clues to how the solar system began," Hancock said.
Some of the electronic components are so sensitive to things like dust that they make workers wear smocks and caps to reduce the risk of contamination.
On a high-frequency shake-table, they subject camera components to intense vibration to make sure they'll survive the launch on an Atlas 5 rocket.
Once the spacecraft reaches asteroid Bennu, it will orbit for a year and a half, taking images and collecting data. Then an arm will reach out and scoop up some of the asteroid, using nitrogen gas to blow gravel and rocks into a capsule — a package marked for special delivery to Planet Earth.
"Once the spacecraft returns to Earth, the capsule will be released from the spacecraft and it will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere,” Hancock said. “Then a parachute will be deployed and it will descend over Dugway, Utah."
The Utah-bound package may provide geologic clues, not only about the origins of the solar system but, perhaps, the origins of life itself.
The launch in Florida is targeted for September 2016. The return to Utah will be in September 2023.