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This article was published 7/1/2010 (3869 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If NASA says OK.
U of W is part of research team OSIRIS-REx -- Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer mission -- which has $3.3 million from the American space agency to develop a proposal by year's end to design an upcoming space mission.
That research mission would bring back pieces of an asteroid which could contain the building blocks to life in the solar system, on a round trip taking about seven years from blastoff to getting the space chunks safely back to Earth at a landing site in Utah. And the U of W would stand to get a small sample of the asteroid.
The University of Arizona heads up OSIRIS-REx, which includes about two dozen partners.
You may have heard of a few of them -- MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) , the Johnson Space Centre, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), the Smithsonian Institution.
"It's a cast of thousands," laughs U of W Prof. Ed Cloutis, geography professor and Director of the Centre for Forest Interdisciplinary Research.
Forest research? Space missions?
Cloutis explained that he has expertise in asteroids, and long experience in using satellite technology for tracking and mapping. "They look around to see where there's expertise for this kind of mission," he said.
"My interest will be in mapping the asteroid. We'll get first dibs at samples of the asteroid."
The mission would be the second -- remember the moon rocks? -- to go into space to collect and then bring back samples of a celestial body.
First things first, though.
NASA is considering three unmanned projects for funding under its New Frontiers program. One will be picked in a year or so, with a cap of $650 million U.S.
The other two are a probe into the upper atmosphere of Venus, and an umanned mission to bring back samples from the far side of the moon.
If OSIRIS-REx is good to go, said Cloutis, the launch would be around 2016, reaching the asteroid in 2019, back to Earth sometime in 2023. The samples would be quarantined until they were deemed safe to be studied in a lab.
Now 51, Cloutis said he intends to still be on the job when the samples get here.
"They're only talking about 150 grams" altogether, he said -- a space mission to fetch barely five ounces of material, preferably soil rather than rock.
The target asteroid is about 650 meters in circumference, and in orbit around the sun.
"We think this particular asteroid contains organic molecules" which could be the 'precursors to life, the building blocks' that will show how life first evolved on earth, he said.
Project leader University of Arizona calls the asteroid "a time capsule from before the birth of our solar system that records presolar history, the initial stages of planet formation and the sources of prebiotic organic compounds available for the origin of life."
U of W would get a sample in its new science complex, a gram or two that is more than enough for serious research, Cloutis said.
He pointed out that U of W is among a handful of Canadian schools involved, not only for their expertise but for politics, he said -- NASA wants the Canadian universities to lobby the Canadian Space Agency to contribute $25 to $30 million to the mission.
Cloutis isn't waiting for 2023, however: "I'm lobbying to get money of the agency, so we can get students involved" long before the mission concludes.
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