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Curtin scientist to jump on historic asteroid-grabbing mission

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Planetary geologist Professor Phil Bland, of the WA School of Mines, Curtin University, will head to the US this weekend as one of only two Australian scientists to take part in NASA’s billion-dollar mission to secure and return to Earth a sample from an asteroid.

Professor Bland will be at Cape Canaveral in Florida on 8 September to witness the historic launch of the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS REx) spacecraft.

Professor Bland said the spacecraft, to be carried by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V Rocket, would head for asteroid 101955 Bennu, arriving at the asteroid in 2018. After orbiting the asteroid for a year and recording as much data as possible, it would obtain a sample and head back to Earth, with an expected arrival time of 2023.

“That’s when we all get to dive in and analyse the rocks,” Professor Bland said.

Material returned from the asteroid is expected to tell scientists more about the formation and evolution of the Solar System, initial stages of planet formation, and the source of organic compounds which led to the formation of life on Earth. It will also help scientists understand the hazards and resources of near-Earth space.

If successful, OSIRIS-REx will be the first US spacecraft to return samples from an asteroid.

“If all goes well it will be the most pristine, oldest Solar System material that we have ever got our hands on,” Professor Bland said.

“We know very little about how planets came together, why the Earth has the composition that it does; where water and organic material came from. The samples that OSIRIS delivers may hold some of the answers.”

Professor Bland said it was a great privilege to be part of the mission.

“I can’t really believe it’s happening, to be honest. It’s a boyhood dream.”

Professor Bland is an ARC Laureate Fellow with the Department of Applied Geology and creator of Curtin’s Desert Fireball Network, which last New Year’s Eve recovered a meteorite from Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in South Australia. His Fireballs in the Sky program, an outreach arm of the Desert Fireball Network project, won a prestigious 2016 Australian Museum Eureka Prize last night.

While in the US, Professor Bland will meet other scientists and engineers participating in the mission. Once the sample is returned to Earth, as a member of the Mission Sample Science team, he (along with several other Curtin scientists and PhD students) will be among the first to analyse the sample.

“One of the unique instruments that Curtin brings to the project is the Geoscience Atom Probe, headed by Professor Steve Reddy,” Professor Bland said.

“That will allow us to get compositional data at the atomic level on dust grains that were the precursors to the terrestrial planets.”

OSIRIS Rex is the third planetary science mission selected in the New Frontiers Program, after Juno and New Horizons.

The mission was developed by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Professor Trevor Ireland, of the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University, is the other Australian scientist invited to be part of the mission science team, which includes members from the US, Canada, France, Germany, UK and Italy.

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