NASA-affiliated scientists admitted Sunday the world’s first robotic mission to return a piece of the asteroid Bennu to Earth was originally inspired by a plastic Solo cup.
A Lockheed Martin engineer originally demonstrated the principles of the device by punching holes in a dirt-filled Solo cup, then placing it face down in his driveway. The engineer then blew air through the cup’s base, causing the dirt to shoot out where it could then be collected. Prior to the Solo cup, engineers had a major problem with the dust scattering instead of being collected.
“Over the past 10 years, it has come a long way from a Solo cup in the driveway to what you see now,” Rich Kuhns, Lockheed Martin’s program manager for the NASA mission, wrote in a press statement.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe will acquire samples of Bennu using the Solo cup-inspired reverse vacuum device. The 4,650-pound, $800 million spacecraft will launch during a 34-day window this September and should reach Bennu sometime in 2018. The probe will collect up to 4 pounds of material from Bennu and return it to Earth by 2023.
“The launch of OSIRIS-REx is the beginning a seven-year journey to return pristine samples from asteroid Bennu,” Dr. Dante Lauretta, a professor at the University of Arizona who is the mission’s lead investigator, said in a statement. “The team has built an amazing spacecraft, and we are well-equipped to investigate Bennu and return with our scientific treasure.”
OSIRIS isn’t the only asteroid mission NASA is getting ready for. The space agency also plans to launch a probe in 2021 to pull an asteroid close to the moon for astronauts to study. The space agency published a request for aerospace contractors, accepting private sector-provided payloads and technical expertise.
Plans to pull the asteroid in for study have been heavily criticized by scientists and Congress.
Dr. Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a scathing take-down of the mission. Binzel said it was a “dead end,” “not a science mission,” and that it would destroy NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
Private companies also plan on sending probes to asteroids. Deep Space Industries (DSI) plans to do so in 2017, the company’s CEO told The Daily Caller News Foundation. DSI believes it can sell air, building material, water and propellant in space cheaper than launching them from Earth. The company believes it can begin full-scale asteroid mining operations in the mid-2020s.
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