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NASA satellites New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx tackling ambitious jobs

Far-out missions investigate Pluto, Kuiper belt, asteroid Bennu

By Arianna McDowell

New Horizons is flying towards the Kuiper belt after passing Pluto, while the OSIRIS-REx is launched and headed to an asteroid named Bennu.


On 8 Sept. 2016, NASA launched a brand new satellite named OSIRIS-REx, which is currently heading to the asteroid Bennu to collect samples and information about the origin of the solar system. Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REX Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona, has worked for NASA since 2001 and sees exciting prospects for her mission.


“With today’s successful launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft embarks on a journey of exploration to Bennu,” said Lauretta. “I can’t wait to see what we will discover.”


OSIRIS-REx will be flying for two years to get to Bennu in 2018 to carefully land on the asteroid, take a small sample of 60 grams of matter, and return to earth in 2023.


“It’s satisfying to see the culmination of years of effort from this outstanding team,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We were able to deliver OSIRIS-REx on time and under budget to the launch site, and will soon do something that no other NASA spacecraft has done, bring back a sample from an asteroid.”


The seven-year mission caught the eyes of RAHS astronomy teacher, Nikhil Joshi.


“It sounds really cool,” Joshi said. “It’s actually a very challenging mission so it’s questionable if it will be completely successful.”


Many people are hopeful of the research that will be done, such as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.


“Today, we celebrate a huge milestone for this remarkable mission, and for this mission team,” said Bolden. “We’re very excited about what this mission can tell us about the origin of our solar system, and we celebrate the bigger picture of science that is helping us make discoveries and accomplish milestones that might have been science fiction yesterday, but are science facts today.”


The older of the two satellites, New Horizons, is also starting to make headway as well. It passed Pluto on 14 July 2015 after its launch on 19 Jan. 2006 to head to the small, cold, lifeless planet. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for New Horizons, was very happy to see the data coming home to Earth.


“Home run!” said Stern. “New Horizons is returning amazing results already. The data looks absolutely gorgeous, and Pluto and Charon are just mind blowing.”


New Horizons found a small mountain range on Pluto. It’s barely 11,000 feet tall and only formed 100 million years ago,compared to our 4.5 billion-year-old solar system.


“These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing — a volcano,” said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “The strange texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have traveled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond”  


“Pluto New Horizons is a true mission of exploration showing us why basic scientific research is so important,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington D.C. “Today, we get the first sampling of the scientific treasure collected, during those critical moments, and I can tell you it dramatically surpasses those high expectations.”


The New Horizons team now wants to extend their satellites’ work by having it travel to the Kuiper belt, a frozen asteroid belt.


“If it recommends funding and NASA approves, the New Horizons Extended Mission would begin in 2017,” according to NASA’s press release, “allowing the team to plan and test the encounter which would take place one-two years later and to continue to operate New Horizons.”


New Horizons may be heading to the Kuiper belt in hopes of collecting new, possibly never seen before data.


“It’s exciting that we are going to the farthest reach of the planets,” said Joshi. “I can’t wait to see what we find.”


New Horizons might even find out information on the mysterious outer solar system.


“There has always been something about a ninth planet,” said Joshi. “There are many objects out beyond Pluto.”
NASA awaits the results from their two major missions, which may be new information on the origins of the solar system. Though the outcome of the potentially great missions is unknown, the potential of the satellites excites students and observers everywhere.

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