In a New Memoir, NASA Scientist Reveals What Asteroids Keep Him Up At Night

Frightening yet alluring asteroids are the subject of a new space memoir.

Asteroid Bennu
Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Planetary scientist Dante Lauretta spent the last two decades pitching, preparing, and pondering a mission unlike one he or NASA had ever tried: OSIRIS-REx, the space agency’s first attempt at retrieving a sample from an asteroid.

Lauretta is now settling into his new role as an asteroid sample scientist. But way before that he began chronicling his epic career in a book. The Asteroid Hunter (Grand Central Publishing) is set to hit shelves today. The book takes readers through Lauretta’s out-of-this-world ventures, including the monumental effort it took to get a spacecraft off the ground, to an asteroid, back to Earth, and on to a new asteroid.

This month, Lauretta spoke to Inverse about the keystone to the entire mission — the space-rock scooper called the Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) that grabbed the sample — as well as what might be hiding inside the carbon-rich, ultra-dark asteroid samples, and what near-Earth asteroids keep him up at night.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Asteroid Hunter (Grand Central Publishing) by Dante Lauretta is out now.

Grand Central Publishing

Inverse: The TAGSAM, which is the robotic “arm” that scooped the asteroid sample as the spacecraft flew by Bennu, went through over 25 rounds of testing to ensure it could do this incredibly important, yet tricky task. It did these tests in NASA’s test plane, nicknamed the “Vomit Comet” for its signature parabolic, u-shaped flights known to induce severe nausea. When you saw the TAGSAM again once it landed on Earth last year, did you have flashbacks to this testing from 11 years ago?

Lauretta: Definitely. When the TAGSAM touched the test bed in the reduced gravity aircraft [the Vomit Comet], it was so gentle! Everything kind of just flipped up in slow motion. It was like a snow globe, but you could tell the physics were different.

It was so captivating. I found myself staring at it and thinking, ‘Wow.’ It really is a different regime when you’re trying to work in microgravity. We don’t have common sense for that. That really stuck with me. What will happen when we get down to the really low gravity [of Bennu], which is impossible to simulate on that aircraft?

This series of 82 images shows TAGSAM touching Bennu’s surface on October 20, 2020.

Have all the Bennu asteroid samples been cataloged yet or is it an ever-evolving process?

It’s kind of a fractal process. When we take them out of TAGSAM and put them in what we call our pizza trays — if you’ve seen some pictures of them, they look like pizza slices — and that whole tray has a sample number. Then we go in and say, ‘Oh, that stone looks interesting!’ That stone gets pulled out and gets its own sample number. That process will go on for years because there are thousands and thousands of stones, especially as you get to smaller particles.

There’s a lot of discussion and decision-making. It’s a balance between doing the most exciting science, meeting the minimum science requirements, and also preserving the legacy of the collection for the future. We don’t want to consume all of a unique thing. But we do want to look at it, so we figure out how to characterize it while maintaining its integrity.

A view of eight sample trays containing the final material from asteroid Bennu.

NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

In the book, you describe the difficulties in talking to media outlets about an asteroid called Duende that would safely fly by the Earth. But then, that same morning, a meteoroid exploded with the power of a nuclear bomb over Chelyabinsk, Russia. Do you have fears that, say, OSIRIS-REx, now called OSIRIS-APEX, finds something gnarly about its new asteroid target, Apophis?

The risk of an asteroid impact is real. It’s small. But the consequences are huge. The event in Chelyabinsk really showed us. That was a true asteroid impact over a populated area. It was a really small object, as these things go, but it still caused damage. Hundreds of people were injured, and the property was destroyed. It woke everybody up.

That reminded me of the comet that struck Jupiter in 1994. Same kind of awareness. We live our lives with our heads down with all our daily struggles. But every once in a while, you look up, and you go, you know, there could be something coming, and maybe we should think about it. These kinds of high-profile events catalyze a lot more activity in these areas, absolutely.

The meteor that broke apart over Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15, 2023 was caught on camera by Aleksandr Ivanov.

How did Chelyabinsk affect the progression of the OSIRIS-REx mission? At the time, the mission hadn't yet been confirmed.

My science is all about origins investigations: How did Earth form, where did life come from, and does it exist elsewhere in the universe? But that’s somewhat esoteric, I would say, especially for Congress and politicians. But something coming from outer space that could cause damage? Everybody understands that. Our mission directly addresses it. So we absolutely leaned into it.

A few years ago, NASA confirmed that the asteroid this spacecraft is chasing now, called Apophis, won’t hit Earth in 2029, nor in 2068, and will fly past us safely in both instances. But Bennu could strike our planet in the year 2182. If that happens, it could create a fireball many times brighter than the Sun and carve out a four-mile-wide crater where dislodged rocks the size of sixteen-story buildings would rain down. Does knowing all this ever give you nightmares?

No. I mean, what it does is make me very humble in the sense that the universe is much bigger than anything I can imagine. Even though I spend my time trying to imagine how big it is, it’s impossible.

The forces that are out there are unbelievably powerful. Once you kind of appreciate that, you can’t help but feel tiny. An asteroid impact is one facet of that. The universe is such an amazing place to explore. There are beautiful things, but there are dangerous things. Our place is very precious. At the end of the day, I come away grateful that I’m here, that I’m alive.

Asteroid Bennu, which was the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, measures about 1,614 feet in diameter.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

In the last 20 years, have advancements been made to better track asteroids? What would you like to see happen next in this field?

In the last 20 years, there have been advances, and there have been setbacks. Advances have been made in the sense that some very capable asteroid survey telescopes have come online. One of which is the Pan-STARRS facility in Hawaii. That was a huge asset that came online and has discovered many hazardous asteroids — and non-hazardous asteroids, for that matter — every night. At the University of Arizona, where I’m based, we operate the Catalina Sky Survey, which has continued to improve its capabilities. It is still a very productive program for looking for asteroids in the Solar System.

This aerial view shows the damage at the Arecibo Observatory after one of the main cables holding the receiver broke in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on December 1, 2020.


I think the biggest setback is the loss of the Arecibo planetary radar system in Puerto Rico. That took severe damage from the hurricane that passed through there. That was such a powerful tool for characterizing the nature of these asteroids: getting their orbit, their size, their shape, their rotation state, and even some information about their surface properties. Arecibo data was absolutely central to mission planning for OSIRIS-REx at Bennu.

We don’t have that anymore. There’s no plan to rebuild Arecibo. I think it’s critical infrastructure. We should be talking about a replacement radio telescope. That, to me, is a major setback and a loss in our capability to get up close and personal with these objects.

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