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PSU meteorite professors get up-close look of NASA asteroid mission launch

Alex Ruzicka and Melinda Hutson at last week's launch. (Alex Ruzicka)

Melinda Hutson and Alex Ruzicka are both geology professors at the Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory at Portland State University. Last week, they got the ultimate up-close look at the launch of the Osiris-Rex asteroid spacecraft launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“The Osiris-REx mission is a sample return mission from an asteroid, Bennu,” Ruzicka explained. "It’s what’s called a near-earth asteroid so it gets kind of close to the earth periodically and it makes it relatively easy to get to.

“It’s of interest scientifically too because it’s a called a B-type asteroid – it’s dark and thought to be rich in organic compounds and it could have something to do with the origins of life on the earth.”

Ruzicka said it will take 2 years for the spacecraft to reach Bennu, where it will map the surface and scientists on earth will decide where best to land to grab a sample. They won’t drill or try and break off a piece, but rather use compressed nitrogen to blow a sample into a container.

That sample could be as small as four ounces, or as much as four pounds.

“My interest in it is because I study rocks from space,” he explained. “I’m a meteorite scientist so I study the rocks that have landed on the earth, but mostly we don’t know where they come from, we don’t know what asteroids they’re originating on.

“By going there and actually knowing what the spectral characteristics of this asteroid are -- how it reflects light -- grabbing the sample and studying it on earth, we can make that connection more and actually understand what we’re seeing in the whole asteroid belt.”

Ruzicka and Hutson spend a lot of time teaching and curating the Cascadia lab, which they started from scratch and now has thousands of samples of meteorites, large and small. The prospect of getting a pristine sample is exciting, Hutson said.

“As I told somebody at the launch, basically we’re getting a meteorite sample that hasn’t got a fusion crust and doesn’t have any biological contamination yet,” Hutson said. “You know terrestrial or biological contamination because the meteorites that are picked up on the ground somebody’s handled them.”

More details of the mission are available online.

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