Canada's Flight Across the Solar System

NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission will get more than a little help from the Canadian Space Agency when it reaches Asteroid Bennu in 2020.

When NASA's new asteroid-sampling spacecraft makes a daring descent to Asteroid Bennu in 2020, it will be thanks in part to help from a much smaller partner -- the Canadian Space Agency. The northern country (which happens to be my home) will fly a lidar altimeter on OSIRIS-REx that will be crucial to help the spacecraft arrive safely.

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OSIRIS-REx -- which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer -- launched Thursday (Sept. 8) from Florida. Upon arriving at Bennu in 2018, the altimeter will map the surface to high resolution, particularly at the touchdown site. The spacecraft will skim above the surface and deploy a small collection device, which will fire nitrogen gas to insert a sample of Bennu.

How many boulders are on the touch-and-go site? How big are they? Where are they located? What is the best path for the spacecraft? We have no way of knowing this until we get much closer up to the asteroid. It's exciting to see us map an asteroid in detail with an instrument that has a family history dating back to Mars. Because in 2008, a Canadian lidar instrument on NASA's Phoenix lander fired into the atmosphere to track the movement of dust particles.

The CSA has a tiny space budget in 2016 of $432 million Canadian ($334 million US); that's less than half the cost of the OSIRIS-REx mission itself. What's extraordinary is how much we can do on such a small budget, and how much respect I hear from my interview subjects about Canada's accomplishments.

Everyone remembers Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's trip to the International Space Station in 2012-13, when the commander charmed the world with his guitar-playing and social media savvy. But his trip is only one of 16 that Canadians have made to space.

Our participation was first made possible by contributing the Canadarm, a robotic arm that caught and released many satellites (including the Hubble Space Telescope). It was also used to build the ISS. Today, the next-generation Canadarm2 snatches visiting spacecraft to the station, and the robotic Dextre has been used to test out satellite refueling at the same facility. These robotic operations could help out as NASA plans human missions to Mars or an asteroid.

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Usually Canadian accomplishments drum in the background, even in my own country. We take our expertise in robotics, and the contributions of our Canadian astronauts, for granted. It comes at a danger; in 2012, an aerospace review board expressed concern about the CSA's lack of budget stability. Critics also pointed to the long gap after Hadfield's mission until the next Canadian astronaut flies in space, which has now been confirmed for 2018. That being said, new astronauts are being recruited now for probable future missions in the 2020s.

I know I'm biased since I report on this sector all the time, but I just find it so exciting when a Canadian mission gets any international attention. I've been told we punch above our weight in space, and I feel like we are making a contribution when I see missions such as OSIRIS-REx. I just hope we pay attention to OSIRIS-REx long after it leaves Earth, and that we pay similar attention to future Canadian space initiatives.

GALLERY: A Short History Of Missions to Asteroids:

Meet Gaspra, our very first encounter with one of the hundreds of thousands of rocky bodies swirling around the sun, mostly in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but thousands more in orbits that come closer to Earth. Gaspra, a 12.5-mile long rock in the main belt, was visited by NASA's Jupiter-bound Galileo spacecraft in 1991.

NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, or NEAR, spacecraft was the first to orbit an asteroid – and the first to land on one. The goal of the mission was to answer fundamental questions about the nature and origin of the many asteroids and comets in orbits that come close to Earth. The probe was launched in 1996 and put itself into orbit around Eros four years later. As it neared the end of its mission, NASA decided to attempt something not previously planned: land the probe on the asteroid, which was successfully accomplished on Feb. 12, 2001. NEAR continued sending back science data for another two weeks.

NASA took advantage of the Cassini spacecraft's trek to Saturn and the Stardust probe's journey to a comet to capture images and gather science information about asteroids. During its passage through the main belt, Cassini flew by the asteroid Masursky. Stardust passed about 3,300 miles from asteroid Annefrank, located in the inner part of the main belt, as a practice run for its encounter with Comet Wild 2 (pronounced "vilt 2".)

Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft arrived at the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa in 2005. It stayed for two years during which time it made several attempts to collect samples during touch-and-go maneuvers. During one try, the spacecraft lost communications with Earth and crash-landed on the asteroid. Despite this, JAXA managed to return the damaged Hayabusa probe to Earth on June 13, 2010. Though its sampling mechanism had failed, thousands of tiny particles were found in one of the sample containers, most likely as a result of the spacecraft's crash. Many particles turned out to be grains from the asteroid, but they were mixed with contaminant particles from the spacecraft. Instead of returning several grams of pristine asteroid material, Hayabusa ended up collecting less a milligram. Nevertheless, these first direct samples of an asteroid proved to have great scientific value, says NASA.

An innovative NASA spacecraft called Dawn, launched in 2007, is in the process of a detailed investigation of the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt. Before arriving at Ceres though, Dawn spent 14 months circling the second largest object in the belt, the asteroid Vesta. It collected evidence confirming that three classes of meteorites -- howardites, eucrites and diogenites, or HED meteorites – are related to Vesta.

The Japanese space agency launched a follow-on Hayabusa mission in December 2014, this time aiming for asteroid Ryugu. The probe is scheduled to arrive in July 2018 and spend about 18 months studying the asteroid before returning to Earth in December 2020 with samples. Hayabusa 2 also includes a European lander called MASCOT and an experiment to send a small impactor into the asteroid's surface to study the resulting crater and how the excavated debris resettles.

NASA's Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security - Regolith Explorer spacecraft, nicknamed Osiris-Rex, is heading to the small, near-Earth asteroid Bennu. Once arriving in 2018, Osiris-Rex is designed to map the surface of the asteroid and inventory its minerals and chemicals. Scientists will pick a site for Osiris-Rex to collect at least 2 ounces, and hopefully more like 4 pounds, of gravel and soil from its surface. The samples are due to be flown back to Earth in September 2023. About 75 percent of the cache is to be archived for future scientists to study.