The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will launch in 2016 and will take four years to reach its destination, the near Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36. One it reaches the asteroid it will spend six months mapping the surface. The science team will then pick a location to land so that its robotic arm can scoop up some of its soil for return to Earth. It will return to Earth in 2023 landing in Utah.
The Canadian LIDAR is one of four primary instruments on the spacecraft and has the critical function of scanning the asteroid to create a dataset similar to 3D map that will assist in navigating the spacecraft towards the asteroid and will also assist when it prepares to land.
Speaking on a NASA teleconference Michael Drake the principal investigator of the mission from the University of Arizona in Tucson said the LIDAR will also be used to “look at the shape of the asteroid, from that we’ll learn issues of mass and we can derive densities and internal structure and a bunch of other things, so it’s an important instrument. The Canadians have a track record with this kind of instrument and we’ve partnered with them before on the Mars Phoenix Lander and they are a very reliable partner.”
“This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration,” said Jim Green, director, NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington. “The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids.”
According to slides on the mission provided by Drake the asteroid is the most potentially hazardous asteroid known. It has a probability of 1 in 1,800 of impacting the Earth in 2182. OSIRIS-REx serves as a “transponder mission”, “it has the dual objectives of refining the orbit to ascertain whether an impact is impending and characterizing the object to facilitate a possible deflection mission“.
Alan Hildebrand of the University of Calgary is the principal investigator of the Canadian LIDAR. Michael Daly, a professor York University is the deputy science team lead. Hildebrand and Daly along with scientists from the University of Toronto, University of Winnipeg and the University of British Columbia will receive some of the soil to analyze.
The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800 million.
OSIRIS-REx Mission Overview (PDF)