Scientist to chase down asteroid

One of the world’s leading planetary scientists is chasing down a nearby asteroid to help retrieve the first-ever sample from one in orbit.

Humberto Campins, a University of Central Florida professor who discovered water ice on two different asteroids last year, is part of a team that has just gotten the go-ahead for the NASA-sponsored OSIRIS-REx mission.

The mission is a first-of-its-kind. The flight to the asteroid will pose challenges because asteroids have unusual gravity fields and can rotate much quicker than planets. Navigating the space vehicle to land on this type of asteroid – millions of miles away from Earth – and scoop up a sample of “primitive” space rock also will be a first for the team.

While Campins is leaving the navigation to others on the team, he will work with lead investigator Michael Drake from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona on choosing the best spot on the asteroid for obtaining the sample.

“It could hold very important clues about how the Earth and other planets in our solar system formed and evolved,” Campins said from the Paris Observatory in France, where he is conducting research with European colleagues.

Meteorites, or asteroid fragments, that hit the ground can lose more than 99 percent of their mass. However, that 99 percent is likely to contain the most interesting information about Earth’s water and organic molecules, Campins said.

“The asteroid fragments we retrieve will be pristine and not modified during atmospheric entry,” he said. “This is as exciting as it gets.”

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