UA & NASA Partner to Inspire Love of Science

Nov. 19, 2012

A new exhibit at University of Arizona’s Flandrau Science Center — OSIRIS-REx Presents Great Balls of Fire! — opens with a video animation showing Earth ringed by a swarm of asteroids. They number just more than 9,000, including several in red to indicate which orbits cross ours.

The year is 1980, and the animation shows asteroids we knew about then. But as the video clock rolls forward, that swarm swells to more than half a million by 2010, with Earth a tiny, blue dot swallowed in a sea of red: tens of thousands of circling asteroids crisscrossing our path around the sun like cars in a demolition derby.

It’s a frightening image, but Melissa Dykhuis is quick to point out that it’s not to scale — pixels don’t show how small the asteroids really are, and vast expanses of space that separate us from even our nearest known asteroid companions. She should know: Dykhuis is a Ph.D. student studying asteroid dynamics, a researcher working on programming to crunch data in support of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission, and one of the the OSIRIS-REx Ambassadors for education and outreach.

A High-Stakes Mission

In 2011, NASA selected the UA to lead the OSIRIS-REx mission. Under the direction of principal investigator Dante Lauretta, Ph.D., NASA will launch an asteroid-bound craft in 2016. It will reach its target in 2018 and spend more than two years orbiting the asteroid to map, measure and photograph its surface. At just the right moment, it will reach out with a robotic arm, snatch up a rock and soil sample and fire it back to Earth in a return capsule. After the long journey home — hurtling more than 300 million miles through space — the sample capsule will gently parachute to the floor of the Utah desert in September of 2023.

The mission will help scientists learn more about how planets formed, assess the accuracy of our telescopic observations and better understand tiny shifts in asteroid orbits. Building that knowledge comes with an $800 million price tag, the largest contract in UA history and nearly double the grant for the UA-led 2007 Mars lander mission.

However, forgoing that knowledge could cost even more. The asteroid the mission will sample may smack into Earth about 170 years from now. Today, we believe the chance of that collision is on the order of 1 in 2,400, but data gathered by OSIRIS-REx will allow us to model asteroid orbits with unprecedented precision and make appropriate plans with a much better understanding of the odds.

Translating Science for Everyone Else

Bringing ideas like these to light is part of Dykhuis’ contribution to the mission as an OSIRIS-REx Ambassador. “Science is often bandied about in words the public doesn’t understand,” she points out. As an ambassador, she helps translate the conversation for a wider audience, including K–12 learners and college undergraduates.

Thus, as a class of third-graders visiting the Flandrau Science Center crowds around that video of Earth engulfed by asteroids, Dykhuis might ask them why we see more now than we did 30 years ago. As they poke magnets at meteorites later in the exhibit, she may lead them to think about why these extraterrestrial rocks are so heavy. In doing so, Dykhuis sees herself as an education facilitator, “getting them to interact on a level that’s deeper than just pushing some buttons in a museum,” she says.

That role, along with the Flandrau exhibit, are just two of many components that will bring OSIRIS-REx to life for people outside the science community all across the country, part of the mission’s $8 million education and public outreach program under the direction of Anna Spitz at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Igniting Interest & Launching Careers

Though education and outreach have historically been hit or miss in science, NASA now dedicates a percentage of mission budgets to this area, Spitz explains. She notes that a 2005 report by the U.S. National Academies warned that “the scientific and technological building blocks critical to [U.S.] economic leadership are eroding,” sparking widespread reform in the scientific community.

Now, launching science careers is as important as launching rockets. Building support is as critical as building knowledge. To those ends, Spitz captains an engine that will train teachers and ambassadors nationwide, create educational kits for libraries and science centers, host public talks and more, all centered on the vision of OSIRIS-REx. The education and outreach program will evolve the exhibit at Flandrau — a prototype for a future traveling exhibit and permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. Already, it’s sponsored a project to collect data through backyard telescopes and a contest to rename 1999 RQ36, the asteroid OSIRIS-REx will explore.

“People become engaged and inspired in different ways,” Spitz says. “It may be a scientist coming to a classroom or it may be being part of a citizen science project.” Her mission, in broad terms, is to figure out the best ways to reach a huge and diverse audience that isn’t just kids in school but also voters and taxpayers whose opinions can make or break science funding.

“The challenge is to show how this is relevant to people’s daily lives,” she says, noting that even though this mission confronts the possibility of an asteroid striking Earth within a few generations, the task of showing relevance is easier when dealing with near and familiar risks, like toxins in our water.

But missions like OSIRIS-REx advance scientific skills and processes that can be applied in other areas, like environmental studies, she notes, and at the end of the day, they shine a light on fundamental questions about the origins and components of life.

“If we can engage people on those big questions, they don’t just learn a little more science—they learn the joy of science and see what it gives to us all.”

The OSIRIS-REx mission is a partnership between the University of Arizona, Lockheed Martin corporation, NASA and dozens of other private, government and academic partners, as well as individual students and researchers around the world. Learn more about the mission, its partners and objectives and how you can get involved at

Visit the OSIRIS-REX mission website.

Check out "Great Balls of Fire" at the Flandrau Science Center.