Connolly, Carrigan discuss historic OSIRIS-REx space mission during Centennial Lecture Series event

Connolly, Carrigan discuss historic OSIRIS-REx space mission during Centennial Lecture Series event

Carrigan, left, leads conversation with Connolly

NASA’s historic seven-year journey to the asteroid Bennu and back climaxed spectacularly in the Utah desert Sept. 24.

For Rowan University’s Dr. Harold Connolly Jr., the adventure started nearly 20 years before with a dream: to not just reach a carbonaceous space rock 200 million miles from Earth but to return a sample from it.

On March 18, Connolly, the OSIRIS-REx mission sample scientist, discussed the project and his history with it before hundreds in Eynon Ballroom with Dr. William Carrigan, a professor in the Department of History.

The program, “Conversations with a Geologist and a Historian — NASA's OSIRIS-REx Mission,” was the latest Centennial Lecture Series event, a year-long celebration of Rowan’s first 100 years.

A full professor of History, Carrigan led the light and informative conversation, which included discussion of America’s space program, the genesis of Connolly’s interest in it (as a boy, he avidly followed the Apollo moon and Voyager missions), and a lively interaction with the audience.

Professor and Founding Chair of the Department of Geology within the School of Earth & Environment, Connolly is now leading research into the sample returned from Bennu by some 250 international scientists.

He noted that among Bennu’s many surprises for scientists was the revelation, once the spacecraft reached the asteroid, that it was anything but the smooth sphere that preliminary data showed it would be.

Instead, the craft reported that the surface was rough and jagged, with at least one boulder 11 stories tall, and that would complicate plans for a delicate touch-and-go collection procedure.

It was information mission scientists found less than reassuring, Connolly said.

“It was a total freakout,” he said with a laugh.

OSIRIS-REx orbited Bennu for two years, a period in which scientists studied the asteroid’s surface, mapped a place for the craft to fly into and collect the sample from, and leave.

During the collection procedure, the spacecraft was to hover just above the surface, extend a robotic arm and collect a sample, but that is not what happened.

“We went 47 centimeters into the asteroid!” Connolly exclaimed. “We weren’t supposed to do that.”

Digging deep into the loose rubble, the arm collected so much sample that a mylar flap designed to contain it became jammed and scientists weren’t certain how much sample was collected until it was back on Earth, secure in a “clean room,” Connolly said.

Carrigan also questioned Connolly about his research into meteorites, which led to his involvement in space missions.

Unlike asteroids, which are pristine in space, meteorites crash through Earth’s atmosphere and become contaminated, Connolly said.

“Geologists are another type of historian,” he said. “The ultimate recorder of time is meteorites.”

Connolly said the scientists and technicians now studying the sample from Bennu hope to better understand how water came to Earth and how life began here.

Perhaps even more important, he said, by studying the sample scientists hope to learn more about how asteroids behave and how to prevent them from hitting Earth.

Scientists will study just 25 percent of the roughly 70-gram sample collected from Bennu, leaving the rest for future generations of researchers, he said.

“And what are your thoughts on all of the movies and TV shows with asteroids?” Carrigan asked.

“I love them,” Connolly replied. “But, of course, none of them get the science right.”

The evening program also included a geology expo in the Eynon Ballroom foyer and a planetarium show.

Open to the public, the free event was sponsored by the School of Earth & Environment, the Edelman Planetarium, the College of Science & Mathematics and the College of Humanities & Social Sciences.