Look! Up In The Sky! Is It A Bird? Is It A Plane? No, It’s $1.16 Billion Worth Of…

When I first saw the words “OSIRIS-REx” I figured that someone had discovered a new dinosaur, maybe a cousin of Tyrannosaurus Rex?

I also figured that the lower-case “x” was a typo, or the upper-case letters were typos, or something in there was a typo.

Wrong on all counts.

It would have been cool to hear about the discovery of a new dinosaur, but instead, this is a story about our government spending a billion+ of our tax dollars on this…

To collect some of this…

Dirt.

Something we apparently don’t have enough of on Earth.

Since this story involves a word that was new to me and may be new to you, here’s the definition:

Regolith:  a blanket of unconsolidated, loose, heterogeneous superficial deposits covering solid rock.  It includes dust, broken rocks, and other related materials and is present on Earth, the Moon, Mars, some asteroids, and other terrestrial planets and moons.

Back to OSIRIS-REx.

I’d never heard of OSIRIS-REx (nickname:  OREx) but apparently it was launched from Cape Canaveral in 2016 and it’s been circling an asteroid called Bennu (nickname:  Benny) for almost two years:

I don’t know why OREx circled Bennu for two years, but if OREx was looking for a parking space, I can relate.

The plan was for OREx to slowly descend to Bennu, hover just above the surface, send out its 11-foot arm, shoot out some pressurized gas, and suck up a couple of ounces of the churned-up regolith (nickname:  dirt):

Then OREx would travel back to Earth, which will take until 2023 because Bennu is 200 million miles away.

This looks like a good place to pause and ask…

Why are we spending at least $1.16 billion to collect dirt from an asteroid 200 million miles away?

For this I went to asteroidmission.org, where I found this:

“The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is traveling to Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid whose regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system.  Bennu may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans.”

The words in red are my emphasis.

I don’t know about you, but when I see the government spending $1.16 billion of our tax dollars, I’d like less use of the word “may” and instead see “absolutely without a doubt.”  “Unequivocally” would be good.  “Indubitably” also has a nice ring to it.

Especially since, a few days after OREx did its dirt collecting, this story appeared:

Oh, no!  After all that traveling and gas shooting and dirt sucking, the stuff was leaking out into space?

Enter Dante Lauretta (pictured at right, below), the mission’s lead scientist, who is often quoted in OREx stories.

Earlier, just after OREx had sucked up the dirt, Lauretta said,

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off.  The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do!”

Not the most confidence-inspiring words I’ve ever heard.

Of some unintended consequences, Lauretta said,

“We really did kind of make a mess on the surface of this asteroid, but it’s a good mess, the kind of mess we were hoping for.”

And isn’t that just like us humans, to leave a mess behind, and then claim that’s what we wanted all along?

As for the asteroid sample leaking out of the spacecraft, Lauretta said,

“I think we’re going to have to wait until we get home to know precisely how much we have,” meaning, “If there’s any asteroid dirt that didn’t leak into space.”

More of those not-the-most-confidence-inspiring words.

So here’s where we are:

This space mission’s lead scientist sounds like a doofus.

Our government is spending at least $1.16 billion tax dollars on the mission and likely much more, because NASA isn’t real familiar with concepts like “on budget” and “on time”:

The purpose of the mission, according to NASA.gov:

“OSIRIS-REx will travel to a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu and bring a small sample back to Earth for study.”

Then, according to lockheedmartin.com – the builder of OREx:

“On September 24, 2023, after a 4.4-billion-mile round trip, the spacecraft will near Earth and eject the sample return capsule, sending it on a direct course to a specific location in a Utah desert.  The spacecraft will perform a final maneuver that will divert it from Earth and send it far out into deep space.”

Wait.  What? 

Isn’t saying “send it far out into deep space” another way of saying they’re consigning OREx to that great trash heap in the sky?

Where it becomes what’s known as “space debris”?

So OREx will be trashed, and maybe fall on my house someday?

Or yours?

The dirt sample capsule may land in the Utah desert and there may be dirt to study.

If there is dirt to study, somebody may learn something about what NASA calls “this pristine remnant from the early days of our solar system.”

Or…may not.

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