The OSIRIS-REx mission, in which a space probe was launched in 2016 to reach the Bennu asteroid, collect samples from its surface and transport them back to Earth, is an example of the cooperation between NASA and Leonardo. The enterprise required sophisticated technologies, many of which were developed by Leonardo in Italy and the United Kingdom, and follows the numerous accomplishments the company has achieved in other space missions with the US space exploration agency.
The mission successfully concluded on 24 September 2023 when the spacecraft, during its return to Earth, released the capsule containing a piece of asteroid Bennu that landed in the Utah desert. This was NASA’s first historic contact with an asteroid, which took place in October 2020, when OSIRIS-REx touched the surface of Bennu for just five seconds - enough to collect approximately 250 grams of soil material.
Since asteroids are by-products of the planet-forming process, studying Bennu will help scientists to understand the origin of the Solar System, to study resources on the surface of these celestial bodies - like water, organic matter, metals, and rare earths that are vital for future space exploration - and to gather information that can be used to predict their likelihood of colliding with Earth with greater precision. NASA has also announced that about 75% of the samples gathered will be preserved for future study with technologies that do not yet exist.
Leonardo’s role in the OSIRIS-REx mission
Leonardo technologies played an essential role in all the critical phases of the mission: guiding the probe toward the asteroid, collecting the samples, and returning to Earth.
At the Southampton site in the UK, Leonardo realised and supplied Arizona State University (ASU) with the infrared sensor for the OTES - Thermal Emission Spectrometer, helping identify minerals on the asteroid, gather thermal data, and enable scientists to achieve a better understanding of Bennu's composition. Leonardo built the A-STR - Autonomous Star Tracker attitude sensor, the ‘compass’ that guided OSIRIS-REx throughout its voyage, at the Campi Bisenzio site near Florence, Italy.
The sensor handled the precision manoeuvres required for accurate positioning in relation to the asteroid during its approach, ensured a stable, secure position while collecting samples from the surface and, lastly, helped the probe adjust its trajectory repeatedly throughout its 2.3 billion kilometre trip back home.
Following OSIRIS-REx, Leonardo is preparing for ESA's HERA mission, the next challenge in the study of asteroids. Leonardo has produced the photovoltaic panels that in 2024 will accompany the probe towards the binary asteroid Didymos and its moon Dimorphos. The objective is to study more closely the after-effects of NASA's DART mission, which in 2022 successfully accomplished the first test of deflection of an asteroid by modifying its orbit. DART was also guided by a Leonardo compass.
Leonardo and NASA, a long-lasting collaboration
OSIRIS-REx has just landed, but numerous NASA missions are still in orbit or on the launchpad, while others have already completed their work. Most using Leonardo instruments and technologies. Some of them are created right in Leonardo’s laboratories, while others are the result of the company’s partnership with Thales through the Telespazio (Leonardo 67% and Thales 33%) and Thales Alenia Space (Thales 67% and Leonardo 33%) joint ventures.
Leonardo created the attitude sensors for NASA’s JUNO mission, which has been studying the planet Jupiter since 2016. This particular sensor is an SRU - Stellar Reference Unit, the optics of which are specially designed to detect extremely faint stars during navigation. With these exceptional characteristics, the SRU not only guided the probe across 2.8 billion kilometres but was also used, for the first time ever, as a high-resolution scientific instrument for exploring multiple phenomena and characteristics of Jupiter's system. In fall 2022, for example, JUNO executed a close fly-by of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, and the SRU captured the highest resolution image yet taken of the Moon’s dark side while it was illuminated by the planet's glow.
JUNO also carries on board a JIRAM spectrometer (also built at the Campi Bisenzio site), funded by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and operated under the scientific responsibility of Italy’s National Astrophysics Institute (INAF). JIRAM is one of the eyes of the mission that enables the simultaneous capture of imaging and spectral information in infrared using a dual focal plane, thus allowing to observe Jupiter up close and better understand its formation, evolution and structure.
Leonardo, through Thales Alenia Space, with the support of a scientific team from ‘La Sapienza’ University in Rome and funding from ASI, built the KaT - Ka-Band Translator for conducting radio science experiments to obtain information on the internal composition and gravitational field of Jupiter.