Institute Profile

Close encounters with the asteroid Bennu

Imagine studying galactic storms and meteorites or being a part of a mission that sends probes for close encounters with gigantic, icy rocks wandering around in outer space? If you are fascinated with such mysteries of outer space, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) of The University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson, Arizona, US, is an interesting place to explore.

LPL has been in the news because it has been at the forefront of the OSIRIS-Rex space mission that discovered water on the asteroid Bennu. From August through early December, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, which is also providing flight operations, travelled 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) from earth to arrive at a spot 12 miles (19 km) from Bennu in December 2018. Breaking a space exploration record it entered into orbit around the asteroid, the smallest object ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. Observations revealed Bennu had interacted with water in its early history. A sample of its surface material is also likely to be returned to Earth in 2023, says an LPL press release.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-Rex. Dante Lauretta, professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at LPL is the principal investigator on the mission and the UA also leads the science team and the mission's science observation planning and data processing.

The Department of Planetary Sciences (PTYS) at LPL carries out research on planetary and solar systems science through theoretical studies and data analysis, laboratory and field investigations, telescopic observations, remote sensing, spacecraft instrumentation, and space mission development and operations.

Faculty members, researchers and students at LPL come from various backgrounds such as astronomy, geosciences, physics, chemistry and engineering, but have a common interest - in planets.

LPL was founded in 1960 by the planetary astronomer Gerard P Kuiper, after whom the Kuiper Belt of icy objects and the prestigious Kuiper Prize for planetary sciences are named. Using telescopes earlier for studies, LPL expanded its space exploration technology, forming the PTYS in 1973.

LPL started out in a tiny corner of the top floor of the Atmospheric Sciences Building. In 1965, with NASA funds, Kuiper began constructing the Planetary Sciences Building that now bears his name.

LPL offers various programmes, which include the following.

Graduate programme: It leads to a PhD degree with a major in planetary sciences. For more details, check (https://www.lpl.arizona.edu/graduate). Areas of specialisation include experimental, observational, and theoretical study of planetary atmospheres; the interiors of planets and planetary satellites; asteroid and cometary astronomy and physics; meteoritics; problems of plasma physics associated with cosmic rays; the solar wind and its interaction with solar system bodies; celestial dynamics; solar physics; and investigations of the formation of the solar system and other planetary systems. For details of courses: check. (https://www.lpl.arizona.edu/graduate).

Undergraduate programme: The PTYS minor in planetary sciences involves the study of the eight planets in our solar system, attempting at the same time to answer fundamental questions such as the origin and evolution of other solar systems and the existence of extraterrestrial life, requiring knowledge of the subatomic world of fundamental particles to the macroscopic world of galaxies.

Students are familiarised with relevant topics merged in traditional disciplines such as physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and astronomy with engineering and computational expertise. The PTYS curriculum, according to UA's website, includes courses designed to meet the following needs of undergraduates:

  • Lower division courses required by liberal arts majors to satisfy general education requirements for science.
  • Upper division courses for science majors requiring a planetary perspective for career development.
  • First Year Colloquia for freshmen with specialised topics in planetary science.

Most interestingly, the PTYS/LPL website mentions that the students are taught by ranked faculty with “your instructor likely to be principal investigators on a NASA space mission or a guest observer at one of the world's premier ground-based, airborne, or Earth-orbiting telescopes, or maybe even a University dean or department head.”

The Planetary Sciences Undergraduate Minor programme is aimed at students aspiring to prepare for a career in solar system research. They should have a strong background in the fundamental physical sciences as part of their undergraduate studies. Some majors to consider include applied mathematics, astronomy, atmospheric sciences, chemistry, geosciences, and physics.