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By: Joshua Sorell



Photo credit: Canadian Space Agency


We met up with Tim Haltigen, Planetary Senior Mission Scientist at the Canadian Space Agency for a Question and Answer about the Bennu Asteroid sample return mission OSIRUS-Rex that is due to return its precious cargo to earth September 24, 2023 at 8am.

 

Q.     Okay, Timothy, can you tell us a little bit about the Osiris Rex mission, when it was launched, and what the objective is?

 

A.      Yeah, for sure. So first off, just Tim is fine. The Osiris Rex mission is an incredible adventure. Really think about it. It's a mission that takes us to the very beginnings of the solar system. So this is a mission that's led by NASA, that had significant Canadian technical and scientific contributions that launched under a perfectly cloudless sky on September 8th, 2016. this is a mission to retrieve a sample of an asteroid called Bennu and bring it back to earth so that we can study a lot more to understand what it's made of and really what it can tell us about the early, early solar system. The great thing about asteroids is that these are materials that are largely unchanged from the beginnings of the solar system and so by understanding what asteroids are made of, really what it's telling us about is, is the chemistry of the early solar system and how planetary bodies formed in the first place. So it's incredibly exciting for us to understand what was going on at the beginning of the solar system and really look into things like the origin of life and organic compounds and potentially look at how water may have been delivered to the early earth as well. So lots of fun mysteries to unravel.

 

Q.     That's a good information. Okay, so why was Bennu specifically chosen for a sample return mission?

 

A.      So Benny is a really neat asteroid and it ended up being selected for a number of reasons. Now to start off there's over half a million asteroids that we know about and so it's a natural question. How did we get to Benny? So. In terms of the half million or so that we know of only a handful of those, just over 7, 000 are considered near earth asteroids. So these are the family of asteroids that we could feasibly get a spacecraft to in a reasonable amount of time. Now, of those, less than 200 have orbits that would allow us to get a spacecraft to the asteroid and also bring it back to Earth, which is obviously crucial for a sample return. So that's under 200 we had to choose from. Of those 200, there are only about 25 or 26 that had a size that was greater than 200 meters and the reason that's important is that if asteroids are too small, they actually spin really, really quickly. The faster they spin, the more difficult and more risky it would be to try to place a spacecraft at the surface. We needed something with a minimum size of about 200 meters. So that left us, like I said, with about 25 or 26. Now, of those, only 5, uh, were made of the materials that we were the most interested in that were, full of carbon. Of those 5, Bennu was ultimately selected because this is one that that does come very, very close to Earth and understanding its orbit in great detail would actually allow us to then better predict where this asteroid is going to be in the future as well. So it was a number of steps to get us all the way down from half a million down to a venue that we eventually selected.

 

Q.     Why did you want a carbon composition in the asteroid.

 

A.      Carbon is a really, really neat element. One of the critical things here is that carbon is you know, the foundation of organic molecules. One of the big questions we have about asteroids are whether or not it was early forming asteroids that delivered these organic molecules to earth. So we're not talking about. Life itself here, but we're talking about compounds like amino acids, for example, and so amino acids are the building blocks you can think. So think of them almost as the Lego pieces were delivered to Earth early on. Bringing back samples of this organic material from the very beginning of the solar system allows us to understand. Are they the same as they are now? Are they different? and if they're different, why are they different? So that was a really crucial piece and a big science question. We're trying to answer.

 

Q.     Could you talk about the why Benny was shaped like it is like a diamond and specifically if it relates to the York effect?

 

A.      it's interesting and it's still a subject of a little bit of debate as to why, um, why the asteroid is, is shaped more like more like a diamond more then than a perfect sphere. There's been a lot of debate about this over the last number of years. It used to be believed that these materials or that these asteroids were formed more as spheres and as they spun up and as they aged eventually, more and more material would be moved towards the equator. That's why you would get that bulge. But one of the interesting things about these, these rubble pile asteroids that, that are diamond shaped is that they're very loosely consolidated. You can think of them almost more as you know, bits of grains that are just loosely held together as opposed to a giant piece of solid rock. And so there's been some simulations done that actually suggest, that these were formed as diamonds early on because of the physics, the way that the forces work in space when you have loosely Held material together, there's a force that's weaker at the equator than at the pole that actually allows more material to accumulate there and so the more current hypothesis is that these were formed as diamonds. In fact, very early on in their formation and haven't changed an awful lot since. O

 

Q.     How many grams of sample does Canada get for the sample return?

 

A.      In exchange for the contribution of the Canadian instrument, OLA (OSIRUS-REx laser altimeter), and all of the support for the Canadian scientists on the mission, we're very, very fortunate that Canada is going to be getting 4% Of the material that's returned. While we don't know exactly how much material was captured, and we won't know until we open up the canister in September, the estimates right now range somewhere between 150 grams and 350 grams total. So that would translate into somewhere between 6 and 14 grams coming back to Canada. And what's amazing about this is that this is going to be the largest amount of mass that has been returned from any sample return mission since the Apollo days. And in fact, is going to be the largest sample mass returned from anywhere outside of the lunar orbit. So there's an awful lot of material here that's going to pave the way for generations of science to take place.

 

Q.     How is that sample going to be returned to earth? Do they put it in a capsule and launch it to Earth or how does it come back?

 

A.      Yeah, so the entire spacecraft actually is on its way back to Earth right now. It departed asteroid Bennu in, in 2021 and it's taken just over two years to get back to Earth. The entire spacecraft is coming back and on September the 24th will be releasing the Earth entry capsule. The sample canister has been securely placed within this earth return capsule. The capsule will be released from the spacecraft and will be landing hopefully very gently in the Utah desert on September the 24th, around 8 am.

 

Q.     If it lands non gently, do you still get to keep the sample?

 

A.      There are a number of contingencies in place for an off nominal landing the plan. The engineering has been spectacular to date so far. We're fully expecting success, but there are some contingencies in place to ensure that a sample recovery can still take place. And we'd be working with our international partners to understand how best to allocate what sample is there.

 

 

Q.     Tell us about the Canadian provided OSIRIS-REx laser altimeter (OLA)

 

A.      Yes, OLA. It is an amazing, amazing instrument. This is an instrument that was designed and built by MDA, with large contributions from Optech, and the science leadership came from York University. And it was, it's a spectacular piece of equipment that allowed us to very precisely measure the shape of the asteroid and so the reason that you want to understand the shape really well at high resolution, and for two reasons, one is that it helps you interpret the geology that you're seeing. With some of the other tools that we had on board, we were able to understand at sort of a bulk level, what the composition of the asteroid is. And in geology, it's always important to relate material and shape because that really helps tell you the story about the formation in the history of the asteroid. So really, step one was, we need to understand the shape to better understand the geological history of the asteroid. Now, the second one was a lot more practical, which was we had to understand where on the asteroid was safe to place the spacecraft in contact with it to collect a sample. We ended up spending close to 2 years studying the asteroid in great detail and using two of the lasers on board, on Ola, we were able to fire and take close to 3 billion measurements, individual measurements, and put together what is now the most detailed 3 dimensional model of any body in the history of space exploration. It's just incredible. You can imagine this is an asteroid. That's roughly the size of the CN tower. It's about 500 meters in diameter and we understand the shape of this entire body at a one point every five to seven centimeters or so, it's just incredible wild.

 

Q.     Do you have a 3d printed a model of Bennu?

 

A.      We in fact, yeah we do. It's funny to think of. What we used to think the asteroid was shaped like, and what it is now, all of the original estimates of of Bennu's shape were based on radar models using radar, radars on Earth in fact, and so we understood that it would have this sort of spinning top shape. Once we got there, it was just fascinating to see the diversity of all the boulders and all of the features and craters and everything that we saw. We've actually made a before and after 3D print of the asteroid.

 

Q.     You ended up choosing Nightingale as the landing site, right? Tell us about the features of the landing site and why it was beneficial.

 

A.      The way that the team had intended to select a sampling site at the beginning was really based on 4 criteria. (1) was called safety, which is: is this an area that's free of of large hazardous boulders that that could damage the spacecraft. We had to assess the entire asteroid for safety. (2) something called sample ability, which is: is there enough small material or small granular material at that location that we could potentially collect? Because the way that the sampling device was. was designed is that the maximum size of particle that it could take in was about two centimeters or so. We had to make sure that there was enough small material at that location that the sampling device would be able to, to ingest some of it. (3) there was something called deliverability, which is: is this a location on the asteroid that we can actually navigate the spacecraft to. And then finally, (4) something called science value, which is: is this a region that looks like it's going to have enough diverse material that will be very interesting to help us answer all of our science questions. We started off with, I think it was about 32 sites that were under consideration and slowly did a down select based on those 4 criteria. And we ended up with Nightingale because it was, it satisfied the best of those 4. Now, that being said, it was a very, very challenging exercise because all of the mission requirements had been outcomes. Assuming that the asteroid would be a relatively benign environment, maybe a few boulders here and there, but largely sort of small particles all over the place, almost like we would be able to land on a beach. And when we got there, and we took our 1st images, everyone was just shocked to see that the surface was covered in thousands and thousands and thousands of boulders. We had to completely redesign how we were going to take the sample, the target size that we were going to aim at and how we were going to navigate around this very, very rough surface to make sure that we could find a site that was safe. Thanks to the scientists and the engineers on the team we managed to select a site that that we felt we could sample and successfully collected the sample on the 1st attempt.

 

Q.     How did you collect the sample? Or what was the sampling method?

 

A.      On the spacecraft, there was a deployable arm that was about three meters in length or about 10 feet. Think about an arm sort of the size or the height of a basketball net. It was deployed after the site was selected and the spacecraft slowly descended towards the asteroid. It was a really neat method actually, the cameras on board the spacecraft all were all used almost like the eyes of the spacecraft. It compared where it was at any given point to a map that we had put into its memory of where it should be and making that constant calculation. It was able to adjust itself to make sure that it was pointed directly at the sampling site. It descended very, very slowly and made contact with the surface and at the end of the arm was a circular piece that looks almost like the air filter in your car. And what happened is when it made contact, it released pressurized nitrogen gas that made a big plume of dust and small particles. Some of those particles were then ingested into this air filter like device, which was called The Touch and Go Sampling Mechanism, or TAGSAM, as it's known. Some of this material was ingested into the TAGSAM. The spacecraft then fired its propulsion system to back away immediately from the surface of the asteroid out to a safe distance, which is where we assessed that we had successfully collected sample. That's awesome, the whole thing, it's incredible to think that, you know, this is a mission that a spacecraft that had flown 2 billion kilometers to catch up to this asteroid, over the course of 2 years, and we studied it for 2 years. And it all came down to under 30 seconds of contact with the surface. it was really, really quite an exciting day when we realized that we'd successfully collected samples.

 

Q.     That's awesome. So that's most of my questions, to close the meeting off is there anything else that you'd like to add about the sample return mission. 

 

A.      there's a couple of things: 1 is I think it's a great example that highlights Canadian technical and scientific expertise on the international stage, data from Ola were crucial in terms of selecting that sampling site and so we're just really proud of the science team, and the industry team that put the instrument together and worked on it. The second thing that that's really exciting about sample return missions in general is you can think of them almost as the gift that keeps on giving, when you think about the Apollo samples, for example, the last Apollo mission was over 50 years ago, and we're still making brand new discoveries on those materials today, because we have equipment that just didn't exist 50 years ago, and we have the maturity to ask Scientific questions that we didn't know how to ask 50 years ago and so, for me, that's 1 of the really exciting parts of this mission is that it's not just about what's the science we're going to be doing this fall. When the samples returned or next year, this is about what's the science we're going to be doing in 2033, 2073, and being able to make these samples available to Canadians and to international scientists for decades to come means that really the mission gets to keep living for, you know, for another 50 years for several generations. I'm just really, really proud that we were able to do that.

 

Josh - Thank you for the great information and for the wonderful interview.

 

Tim - No, thanks for taking the time and thanks for the invitation. It is a really exciting mission. And it's just amazing to think that September, the 24th, 2023 was always this date that was off in the future. And to think that we're now just a few months away is unbelievable.

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By: Joshua Sorell



Q: Can you tell me in your own words who you are and what do you do?

A: Sure, my name is Philip Ferguson. I'm an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Manitoba. Price Faculty of Engineering. I also hold the NSERC Magellan Aerospace Industrial Research Chair in Satellite Engineering, and I'm the Director of the Space Technology and Advanced Research Lab, or STAR Lab, here at the University of Manitoba.

The research that I do really tries to kick the aerospace industry in the pants a little bit, if I could say that, I spent probably 10 years or more working in the aerospace industry, both in Canada and the United States, in the satellite industry and also in the drone industry. I found that we are leaving a lot on the table when it comes to capabilities for satellites, and drones. My research really looks to improve the accessibility of aerospace technology so that communities, research groups, and companies have access to aerospace data in ways that haven't really been possible in the past.

It used to be the case that only companies and governments with extremely deep pockets, like hundreds of millions of dollars were able to access satellites, or satellite data, or autonomous drone systems. Now with CubeSats and smaller, inexpensive drone systems, we're able to provide better value for communities and other people that need to use this data. We need to do research to understand how this data, how this technology could positively impact those groups. So that's what my research looks into.

 

Q: Tell me about the IRIS satellite at the University of Manitoba?

A: IRIS was a project that was funded by the Canadian Space Agency. It was part of the Canadian CubeSat program that kicked off in 2018. This was a program by the Canadian Space Agency that funded one CubeSat for every province and territory in Canada. The IRIS CubeSat was the one that was funded for the province of Manitoba. For the IRIS project we partnered with researchers from the University of Winnipeg, these people are interested in space geology and understanding space rocks and their origins and different kinds of minerals and resources that we can extract from those for either future long duration missions, or even just to understand the origins of our universe.

Those scientists were part of the OSIRIS-REx mission from NASA, which It's pretty cool that in just a few days, we're going to have a little capsule returned to Earth after many, many years, having scooped up a little bit of gravel from the asteroid Bennu. There are some interesting questions there that the team needs to understand how those space rocks that were scooped up by Bennu, how those rocks might have been changing as they were exposed to space weather. Space weather is a large term that means a lot of different things. It means space radiation, it means micrometeoroids, it means atomic oxygen, but basically anything that can happen to an object resulting from the stuff that's out there in space. We call that space weather. What we were trying to do is say, all right, we have some rock and we expose it to space radiation. How do those rocks change their optical properties over time when exposed to this space weather?

And that's what Iris was really trying to do. We sent some space rocks back into space. Again, these are little pieces of meteors or asteroids that were once in space and we found them on the surface of the planet. We also created some other analogs that represented other little bits of asteroids and moons and planets that we think might be out there and we put them on a little sample plate. That little sample plate had a camera on top of it, and that camera was taking pictures of those samples periodically and letting us know how those samples are changing their optical properties as they're exposed to the space environment.

 

Q: When did you launch from the ISS?

A: We launched to the ISS in early June, and then in early July, we were deployed from the space station along with some other satellites from other universities across Canada and another CubeSat from an American company down south. That was in early July. Since then, we have been making, I'll say, sporadic contact with our CubeSat. It has not been as smooth as we would have liked it to be, we have detected signals from our CubeSat and we have been able to determine that it's there and it seems to be alive. We are continuing to work with our radio manufacturer right now to understand some of the power settings on the radio, we're working with the other universities that deployed at the same time as us, because we are all experiencing almost the identical communications issues right now. We suspect that it has something to do with the extremely challenging space weather environment right now. Ironically immediately after we were deployed from the space station, there was a large solar flare and that flare affected a lot of space to ground communications.

We suspect that it has affected our radio on board. I think most of the other teams that are all experiencing exactly the same thing have the same kind of conclusion. It was about an hour after the astronauts deployed us from the space station that we had this solar event and then about a week later, there was another big solar event. The solar events make for some really pretty Northern lights down here on earth but they make for a challenging orbital environment particularly when we are working with low cost commercial electronics that aren't really space grade.

All is not lost. We are fairly certain that we have signals from our CubeSat, we are currently working with our radio manufacturer to change those power settings and they are working to try to develop some special codes that we can send up to the radio to try to get it to reset. We're fairly certain that that will be successful. Fingers crossed but, in the meantime, what we've learned through this mission has just been completely invaluable. We've learned how to put together this CubeSat. We've learned some valuable lessons about space weather, maybe not the ones that we were hoping to learn but some other lessons learned that we are now applying to our future satellites, like the ones that we're doing for Cubics.


Q: What is your next thing that you are working on?

A: We are building two satellites right now and in addition to operating IRIS, one of the satellites is for the CUBICS program and another satellite that we're working on with Magellan aerospace it's being proposed it hasn't yet been approved. We're doing the preliminary systems development for a CubeSat for defense research and development Canada as part of the Red Wing program that Magellan is working on to help track resident space objects, basically space debris and satellites to improve space situational awareness. It's also not at all funded by the Canadian Space Agency. We are using some of the lessons learned that we got from IRIS and our other CUBICS mission but that is a different project.

The CUBICS project with the Canadian Space Agency, the project is called ArcticSat, and ArcticSat will be another 3U CubeSat that we will use to image and measure ice thickness and ice quality in the coastal regions of Nunavut, so along the western coast of Hudson Bay. We are co-developing this CubeSat with Inuit communities in, Chesterfield Inlet and Indigenous communities in Churchill, Manitoba as well. What we're intending to do is improve the ice safety as community members use the ice for hunting and traveling and try to give them a better big picture view of how the ice is evolving as climate change affects their way of life. There are many people may quite accurately say, “Aren't there already satellites that can measure ice thickness and ice data such as radar sat and ice sat and some other satellites like that.” and that is definitely true, but historically communities, and especially northern communities have had trouble accessing that data for a fair price and also accessing the timely data that they need in order to watch freeze up season and the breakup season in the spring. So this will be a first of its kind a dedicated spacecraft for communities to use and actually operate themselves to get this critical data that is changing extremely rapidly. These days the front line of climate change is really Canada's Arctic region and we're working with them to develop tools that they can use and support their communities.

 

Q: Are you collaborating with any other groups for the satellite, or are you just working with the indigenous communities?

A: Yeah, we are, we're working with the Indigenous communities. The groups that we're working with is the town of Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, and we're also working with the Duke of Marlborough High School in Churchill, as well as the Interlake School Division just north of Winnipeg here. The Interlake School Division was also a part of our IRIS project. They built a little sundial for IRIS that told us the direction of the sun on our rock samples, which was important because most of the space weather comes from the sun, as we know all too well. The interlake school division is also working with us on the Arctic sat mission. They will be helping us with some temperature sensors and trying to do some of the thermal modelling of our satellite, which is really important because one of the things that we need to do for Arctic sat is deploy a half meter wide antenna, a parabolic antenna out of a very small package. And that will be extremely dependent on the temperature. We are relying on some of those students to help us with some of our thermal analysis, some of our thermal testing of deploying these objects.

Then our students in Churchill will be helping us with the design again of some of our deployable equipment, but also trying to understand how radiation might be affecting some of our deployment mechanisms and we'll be putting some small radiation sensors on the outside of our deployed dish. We're also going to be working with the students in Churchill, Manitoba to do some tests of our microwave payload, by flying it on a drone over Hudson Bay. Just off the coast there from Churchill using the new Churchill Marine Observatory that the University of Manitoba has established out there in Churchill. It's a good opportunity for us to work with many of the communities in the north, as well as some of the students and try to inspire that next generation of aerospace scientists and engineers.

 

Q: How do you increase access to CubeSats and how are going about that?

A: When we talk about access to a technology, there's many different avenues that we can and should discuss. There's access from a financial perspective. Making these technologies affordable on budgets that are more reasonable for, say, small communities or research labs. There's access from a from a data perspective. How do we get data into the hands of people that can actually use it? It's easier today than it has been in the past, especially for northern communities with the deployment of networks like Starlink from SpaceX and others but there still are barriers of getting the appropriate data to communities. Our hypothesis here is that CubeSats can help with that data delivery. As well there's also the access to the technology and making sure that this technology is accessible and understandable and usable by people. We're working with communities to make sure that instruction manuals are written in an appropriate language and using the right characters whether that's in Inuktitut or any other indigenous language and making sure that they can understand and operate these things is important. I think fundamentally making sure that these solutions are what these communities need and that's an important part of accessibility too, because so often we have cases where scientists and engineers come up with great solutions for problems that don't actually exist, they usually mean very well, but they tend to show up in communities and say, we've solved all of your problems, here's a solution. They sort of drop it at the doorstep and then they leave and that's not really helping things very much.

One of the things that we're really trying to do is saying, if we co develop solutions together and really work closely with the communities to understand their needs and understand what it is that is challenging them with respect to climate change, or access to transportation, or data communication, or anything like that. Then we can develop solutions with them, and for them, but not just kind of plunk it down in front of them. I think that's another important part of access that that needs to be talked about is we develop this technology, but we need to make sure that people can use it. Then it's actually solving the problems that are present and not just those that are perceived.


Q: Is there anything that you would like to highlight?

A: One of the research areas that my lab, the STAR Lab is looking into is ways in which we can develop these technologies that I've talked about, whether they be navigation technologies, or control technologies, or payload remote sensing technologies, we need to find ways to test them and verify them in inexpensive ways, but also making sure that we're retaining the reliability that we need for these space systems to actually work in space. One of the ways that we're doing that is using drones as a stand-in for spacecraft dynamics and really space delivery methods.

I mentioned before that we were planning on using drones to test payloads for Arctic sat. We're using drones for lots of different things in our lab. To that end, we're expanding the STAR Lab now to include some drone test areas. We have one right now near the airport in a large warehouse, where we've instrumented it with some of the world's best motion tracking cameras, thanks to a really fantastic grant from Prairie Can. This is allowing us to evaluate space technologies, remote sensing technologies, but also other drone technologies that are helping society, function better, like using drones to inspect bridges, or monitor construction projects, or to deploy temporary cellular infrastructure. This is a really exciting project, the facility is called the drone zone that we've set up and we're looking to expand it to a larger facility called drone dome in the near future.

this intersection between satellites and drones is, I think is a important one. We've already seen the work that's happening by the jet propulsion laboratory with the ingenuity drone that's flying around with the Perseverance rover on Mars. My colleagues and I really see this as a huge opportunity to leverage these multi scale observations where you have spacecraft overseeing a larger area drone that maybe we get a more focused look at some other area and then maybe a little rover on the ground that gets an extremely close-up view or maybe a physical sample of something. This drone zone that we have over near the airport and the future drone dome facility that really moving us in that direction.

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By; Joshua Sorell


We connected with Canadian Space Society member Shaziana about her recent trip over email. Here is the Q&A


Q: What Program did you particapate in?

A: HI-SEAS analogue mission as part of the EuroMoonMars + Interstellar Moon Alliance and HI-SEAS (EMMIHS) collab


Q:How did you get involved?

A: I had known about HI-SEAS and other missions for several years now and had planned to do at least one or more after my graduate studies, however, things were on hold due to the pandemic. In early February I was getting back into pre-pandemic interests and happened to stumble upon the applications for HISEAS which seemed to be the only mission accepting applications at the time. So, without expecting any outcomes, I dropped my name in the bucket!

Long story short, it's an application and selection process that includes psychological evaluations


Q: Where was it?

A: Mauna Loa Volcano in the Volcanic National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii, at 8200 ft altitude


Q: What was the best part?

A: so many good things! The crew bonded amazingly and we had so many good times, from playing UNO FLIP, to Space Monopoly, hosting a YN hab style, watching a very relevant NCIS episode, and just overall working well together.

My absolute favourite part was the sunrise EVA I had the opportunity to do the second last day. I am not a morning person so you know it was good! That day I was able to do 2 EVAs which is not common, the second being sunset. We were so hyped from the sunrise EVA, that my EVA partner and I convinced the rest of the crew to do the same the next and final day.

It was also really nice having someone else schedule my days, with dedicated exercise time everyday, and meals taken care of (I myself only had to cook twice! And I wasn't alone!)

I also really enjoyed my roles as Space Engineer and Public Outreach Officer, where I got to check on hab systems health, snap photos of everything we were doing, and write up journal stories of each day !


Q: What was the worst part?

A: worst part, ending! Haha, and otherwise general experiment struggles, and the pre trip planning (it was a quick turn around of about only 10 days from selection to departure as I was one (of a few) pulled from the back-up crew, filling in for a last minute drop out)


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