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People watch a rocket liftoff at Cape Canaveral, Fla. to begin NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission. (Craig Rubadoux/Associated Press)
People watch a rocket liftoff at Cape Canaveral, Fla. to begin NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission. (Craig Rubadoux/Associated Press)

Ambitious mission to fetch asteroid sample lifts off Add to ...

An ambitious journey to retrieve a sample of a distant asteroid is under way.

Like a fiery white dart set against an all but cloudless blue sky, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lifted off atop its Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Thursday evening.

The launch took place at 7:05 p.m. ET, on the first day of a month-long window during which the U.S. probe had to depart to intercept its target, a 500-metre wide asteroid named Bennu, in August, 2018.

As the rocket began its ascent, in a clear nod to Star Trek fans celebrating the 50th anniversary of the beloved sci-fi series, NASA commentator George Diller announced that OSIRIS-REx had begun “its seven year mission to boldly go to Bennu and back.”

Canada is a participant in the OSIRIS-REx mission and several Canadian science team members were on hand for the launch as well as federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and representatives of the Canadian Space Agency.

“It was perfect,” said Mike Daly, an associate professor of space engineering at York University in Toronto. “The hairs on the back of my neck went up.”

Dr. Daly led the development of a scanning lidar system that will make detailed measurements of Bennu’s topography in advance of an attempt by the spacecraft to grab a sample. In exchange, Canada will receive a 4-per-cent share of the up to 2-kilogram sample that OSIRIS-REx will attempt to bring back. If the effort succeeds, the sample will represent the largest quantity of extraterrestrial material to be retrieved from space since the moon landings of the 1970s.

Bennu is a B-class asteroid, a carbon-rich body that could contain molecules that are precursors to life. Its precise properties are not matched by any known meteorite, making it a tantalizing prize for researchers keen to understand the early evolution of the solar system.

“What kind of stuff is it? We literally just don’t know,” said Alan Hildebrand, a University of Calgary researcher and science team leader.

While the voyage to Bennu is just beginning, it has already been a long and sometimes rocky road for Canadian engineers and scientists eager to seize the opportunity to be a part of OSIRIS-REx.

That opportunity began in 2008 when Dr. Daly, then an engineer with the Brampton-based aerospace company MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, received a call from the University of Arizona in Tucson, where researchers were making plans for an asteroid sample return mission. Dr. Daly had already developed a lidar system for the university’s Mars lander, Phoenix, which used it to make measurements of the Martian atmosphere. Here was a chance to repurpose the same technology for an even more challenging and mission-critical role.

The catch was getting the Canadian Space Agency and the federal government to support the project – a challenge compounded by a mismatch in the way Canada funds such initiatives relative to the U.S. and other international partners.

Generally speaking, a NASA mission that has been approved for funding will roll forward unless budget or scheduling problems emerge. By contrast, each phase of the OSIRIS-REx lidar project had to be approved by the Treasury Board, which oversees federal spending. The additional waiting time put the Canadian part of the mission in a holding pattern even as the U.S. was progressing. When Ottawa gave its OK to build the device in the summer of 2014, Dr. Daly and his team were left with only 18 months to make good on Canada’s commitment and build the instrument in time to be integrated into the the rest of the spacecraft. The total cost of Canada’s involvement in the mission is $61-million.

“It becomes a matter of timing,” said Gilles Leclerc, director general of space exploration for the Canadian Space Agency, who acknowledged that different procurement and approval procedures by different government can make international collaborations “a big challenge.”

Yet, armed with only a modest budget and no domestic launch capability, Canada’s scientists and aerospace companies depend almost entirely on international partnerships to facilitate their involvement in space exploration and maintain expertise.

Canada’s next moment in the planetary spotlight will come in 2020 with its participation in NASA’s ExoMars mission.

In the meantime, Dr. Daly said he’s looking forward to something even more exciting than seeing OSIRIS-REx lift off: the first close-ups of Bennu.

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