MDA Wins Contract to Build Mapping System for Asteroid Sample Return Mission

Artist illustration of OSIRIS-REx approaching asteroid Bennu. Credit: NASA

MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) has been awarded a contract to build a sophisticated mapping system for a joint Canada-US mission to retrieve samples of an asteroid.

The Honourable Christian Paradis, Minister of Industry made the announcement today. “Our government has always been a strong supporter of the Canadian space sector, and this groundbreaking project will position the industry to take full advantage of future space and non-space opportunities,” said Minister Paradis. “Canada has a proud legacy in space, and our government is ensuring that the sector can continue to create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for Canadians.”

The $15.8-million contract is for the design of a sophisticated mapping system known as the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA). The OSIRIS-REx mission will be the first U.S. mission to return a sample from an asteroid to Earth. OSIRIS-REx will be launched in September 2016 and will reach asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2018.

The OLA is an advanced lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) system that is a hybrid of the lidar on the Phoenix Mars Lander’s Canadian weather station. OLA will scan the entire surface of the asteroid to create a highly accurate, 3D model, which will provide mission scientists with fundamental and unprecedented information on the asteroid’s shape, topography, surface processes and evolution.

OLA uses a receiver and two complementary lasers to provide the information beamed back to Earth. OLA’s high-energy laser transmitter will be used for scanning from further distances (1-7.5 km from the surface of the asteroid). As the spacecraft comes within seven kilometers of the asteroid, the laser-altimeter will be used to perform comprehensive surface mapping operations that provide topographical maps that will assist in navigating the spacecraft towards the asteroid. The low-energy laser will be used for rapid imaging at shorter distances (500 m to 1 km) to contribute to a global topographic map of the asteroid, as well as local maps to assist scientists select the best sites for sample collection. Once a sample is collected, it will be returned to Earth in 2023.

As the prime contractor for OLA, MDA is designing, building and testing the instrument for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The Principal Investigator for the Canadian science team is led by Dr. Alan Hildebrand of the University of Calgary. Dr. Michael Daly from York University is the OLA instrument scientist. The team also includes researchers from University of Winnipeg, University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia.

Near-Earth Objects, or NEO’s, cross our planet’s orbit on a regular basis, but only a handful are large enough to pose a threat. One of these objects is asteroid 1999 RQ36, a “leftover” from the formation of our solar system four-and-a-half billion years ago. In an effort to better understand NEO’s and our planet’s own origins, NASA is sending the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to asteroid 1999 RQ36 to study the evolution of its orbit and to retrieve a sample for return to Earth. Credit: NASA

For more information on the mission, see An Overview of Canada’s Participation in the OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission – a presentation by Dr. Ed Cloutis of the University of Manitoba, one of the scientific investigators on the OSIRIS-REx mission. This lecture was made at the Canadian Space Summit last November in London, Ontario.

About Randy Attwood

Amateur astronomer, astrophotographer, space exploration historian. Executive Director, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada / Publisher - SkyNews magazine.

Leave a Reply