On September 8, 2016, NASA successfully launched the OSIRIS REx mission. This mission does not have the glitz of glimpsing a distant Dwarf Planet like Pluto, but is designed to visit a “close neighbor” called Bennu. Bennu is an asteroid that is on the list of near-earth objects that pose a threat to our common home. Bennu has a one in one-thousand chance of hitting the earth in the twenty-second century. However, this isn’t the only reason NASA has chosen to visit Bennu.
Year one of the mission will be spent orbiting the sun to build up velocity. Then, OSIRIS REx will “slingshot” around the earth, giving the prob a gravity assist to send it off to Bennu. In August of 2018, OSIRIS REx will approach Bennu, needing to match its speed and orbit. The next year will be spent examining the asteroid, learning everything we can about its composition, qualities, and look for a good “touch point” to take a sample of this asteroid to bring back to earth. OSIRIS REx will not land on Bennu, but will literally bounce off the surface with a device that acts like a Pogo stick. This “bounce” will occur in the year 2020.
On the bottom of this device is a kind of vacuum that will suck up between 60 grams to possibly 2 kilograms of Bennu’s surface. NASA hopes to learn more about our material origins by studying the sample captured by OSIRIS REx. Research shows that Bennu is Carbon rich, teasing out the possibility of this asteroid containing ancient building blocks for life. Since Bennu is approximately as old as when we think the earth formed, Bennu presents itself as an ancient relic of our material origins.
One of the reasons why this sample is being brought back to be studied instead of having an “on-site” study like NASA does on Mars is to compare the sample with meteorite samples found on earth. A difficulty when studying meteorites is that earth’s environment often contaminates these samples. Therefore, if OSIRIS REx can return a pristine sample of Bennu, we can gain a great deal of insight into just how much a meteorite is contaminated when it lands on earth. So, when will this sample hopefully return to earth? OSIRIS REx is scheduled to re-enter earth’s atmosphere in 2023. For a more detailed explanation of the mission timeline of OSIRIS REx, check out this wonderful, interactive timeline from NASA by clicking here.
On a personal level, I feel connected with this mission in a way that is different from other NASA missions. As part of the first Faith and Astronomy Workshop, we visited the headquarters for ORSIRIS REx at the University of Arizona. Dr. Carl Hergenroth gave a wonderful presentation on the OSIRIS REx mission, laying out the mission details I just shared with you. In my childhood, I often wondered what it would be like to be part of a space mission. This visit gave me a brief moment of living a childhood dream.
At the same time, after the nostalgic moment was done, it also provided a sobering reminder that this and other objects could do “Biblical” damage to our common home in the future. This mission contains a fascinating juxtaposition of scientific interests: Gain a better understanding of our origins while also trying to understand how to delay our potential end.
It is easy to see the importance of a mission like OSIRIS REx. Protecting life on earth alone would be a good enough reason to visit this neighboring asteroid. However, I am also happy to see that OSIRIS REx feeds our fascination of wanting to know our material origins.
Beginning and End – One of the unique attributes of the human person is our curiosity with the questions: Where did come from? and Where are we going? Given the extreme expense of space exploration, the more idealistic reasons for exploring space often take a back seat to those that contain the greatest potential for concrete contributions to humanity. Nevertheless, OSIRIS REx is a mission in which the practical and the idealistic meet.
Another question this mission teases is a clear jump from the scientific to the theological/philosophical: What is our ultimate origin and ultimate end? Science does wonderfully with exploring the physical “stuff” that made the world. However, to ask the deeper questions of why is this “stuff” here and what is the purpose of our lives explores questions that science is not equipped to handle. At the same time, it would be an error to presume that our scientific understanding of the universe provides no contribution to questions of meaning and purpose. Rather, knowing how the world works is a way of knowing God. Yet, just as we know that the end of our earth, whenever that might be, will not be the end of the universe, so, too, do we intuitively know that the end of our lives on this earth is not the ultimate end. Rather, it is another beginning, passing through a metaphorical womb to a new existence we cannot even fathom at this point. To borrow an image from the Catholic apologist and philosopher Peter Kreeft, just as an infant, if able to self-reflect, would not understand the purpose of its hands, feet, eyes, mouth, lungs, and voice until it passes through its mother’s womb, so, too, will we not fully know the complete meaning of beauty, suffering, pain, joy, love, despair, and inner peace until we pass through the womb of death.
Spiritual exercise: As we follow missions like OSIRIS REx in the years ahead, let us marvel at what the Lord has inspired the human person to accomplish through the scientific exploration of space, earth, and the life upon our common home. Let us also continue humanity’s wonderings about our ultimate beginnings and ends, seeking to find meaning and purpose for our lives. And may this exploration land us (pun intended) within the hands of God, sustained by the love of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.