Planetary sciences alumni return for Walker Distinguished Lectures

Planetary sciences alumni return for Walker Distinguished Lectures

Dante Lauretta, PhD ’97, Regents Professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson and principal investigator of NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, returned to Washington University in St. Louis last month to deliver the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences’ 2022 Robert M. Walker Distinguished Lectures. In his public lecture, “Playing Tag with an Asteroid: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Mission at Asteroid Bennu,” Lauretta shared an insider’s account of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission, one of the most challenging scientific expeditions in history.

Lauretta during his colloquium on returning a sample of the early solar system (Photo: Sean Garcia)

As principal investigator, Lauretta is the lead scientist on NASA’s billion-dollar OSIRIS-REx mission, which stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.” The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft traveled to near-Earth asteroid Bennu, briefly contacted its surface in October 2020, and collected about 250 grams of regolith. OSIRIS-REx is on track to return the sample to Earth in September 2023, when researchers will analyze the material to advance our knowledge of Earth’s formation and possibly even the origin of life on this planet.

“Professor Lauretta has contributed to the space sciences community in many ways, not just in the science, planning, and execution of the OSIRIS-REx mission, but also in speaking about and sharing this important work with the public,” said Bradley L. Jolliff, director of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences and the Scott Rudolph Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “He’s a tremendous purveyor and conveyor of public knowledge about the mission and about what NASA does.”

From left, Kate Crombie, Brad Jolliff, and Dante Lauretta (Photo: Sean Garcia)

In addition to the public lecture, Lauretta presented a technical colloquium focused on the details of the sample return and what preliminary analysis has revealed about Bennu so far. Kate Crombie, PhD ’97, founder of Indigo Information Services LLC, which provides data management and data archive services to NASA spacecraft mission teams, also participated in a brown bag lunch with current graduate students. Crombie shared her perspective on planetary science data management practices and NASA’s data management policy.

Crombie and Lauretta met as graduate students in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and have been working together on OSIRIS-REx since 2004.

“We’re very fortunate to count Dante and Kate among our distinguished alumni and to be able to welcome them back to share their experiences with current students and reconnect with old friends,” Jolliff said.

View the recording of Lauretta’s public talk, “Playing Tag with an Asteroid,” on the Arts & Sciences YouTube channel.