To the Moon

Chair of physics department lands NASA grant

Beth Ellen Clark, associate professor and chair of the physics department, received a $2.7 million grant from NASA in August to fund her part of the first U.S. mission to bring samples of an asteroid back to Earth for study and analysis.

The mission, named OSIRIS-REx, is scheduled for 2016 and will execute touch and go maneuvers with a spacecraft on an asteroid called RQ36. The spacecraft will return to Earth by 2023, but Clark’s grant will fund her research through 2025.

“Our target asteroid contains a record of the conditions before the solar system was formed, so you can think of the asteroid as a time capsule,” Clark said. “Studying the samples will improve our understanding of how the planets were formed and provide insights into the sources of prebiotic organic compounds necessary for the origin of life. This mission will be the first in the history of space exploration to return a pristine sample of a carbonaceous asteroid.”

Clark will be responsible for coordinating the selection of sampling sites based on observations from five science teams. When the spacecraft returns, Clark and her students will help analyze the samples and test theories about the early formation of the solar system.

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program and includes scientists from 14 colleges and universities. The project will cost an estimated $800 million, excluding the launch vehicle.

“Like the moon rocks from the Apollo missions, samples of RQ36 will keep on giving,” said Clark.

“Decades after this mission is completed, we’ll be using equipment we haven’t yet dreamed of to test new theories of solar system origin by examining rocks from RQ36.”