The Asteroid Hunter

Category: Nonfiction
Reviewed by: Mark Lardas
Title: The Asteroid Hunter: A Scientist’s Journey to the Dawn of Our Solar System
Author: Dante S. Lauretta
Format: Hardcover/Kindle
Pages: 336
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Date: March 2024
Retail Price: $30.00/$14.99
ISBN: ‎ 978-1538722947
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Discovered in 1999, the asteroid now named Bennu is in an orbit which brings it near to Earth’s orbit. If its orbit is undisturbed it may hit Earth on September 24, 2182 (subtle orbital mechanic perturbations make it impossible to predict its orbit with certainty). This nearness permitted conducting an asteroid rendezvous mission with Bennu, one that resulted in return of samples from its surface in September 2023.

The Asteroid Hunter: A Scientist’s Journey to the Dawn of Our Solar System, by Dante S. Lauretta, tells the story of the asteroid, the OSIRIS-REx mission that visited it, and the man who guided it. Lauretta, the principle investigator (PI) for OSIRIS-REx, tells the story.

The first third of the book is autobiographical. It tells how he grew up poor in Arizona to become the first in his family to attend college. Then, entering his senior year he learned about a student internship with NASA. He applied, got the job, and became a space scientist, first exploring SETI and then moving to astrobiology. It is the tale of two Drakes, Frank and Michael Drake. Frank Drake, influential in SETI, indirectly created the opportunity that launched Lauretta’s career. Michael Drake, as head of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, hired Lauretta as a UA faculty member and served as Lauretta’s mentor and friend thereafter.

The next two thirds of the book present the OSIRIS-REx mission, from its inception to its conclusion. Lauretta tells how Drake recruited Lauretta’s participation in an asteroid sample recovery mission. Drake would be the PI, leading the project, the up-and-out guy, while Lauretta would be the science lead—the down-and-in partner. It was 2004. A cocktail hour agreement between Drake, Lauretta and a representative from Lockheed Martin (who would build the spacecraft) led to a project that consumed twenty years.

Lauretta relates what followed. He developed the initial mission concept, found a suitable candidate asteroid (then-unnamed asteroid 1999 RQ36), and wrote a mission proposal for NASA. He explains the science behind his choices and what they hoped to find. NASA rejected the proposal twice before finally accepting it for phase A in 2009. Michael Drake suffered liver failure. Lauretta became acting PI, which became permanent after Drake died in 2011, just as NASA green-lighted the project.

Lauretta describes the challenges met and overcome to complete the mission. Some were small, like a contest to name Bennu. Others were significant, including the challenge of landing safely on Bennu, recovering a sample and returning it to Earth, complicated by COVID. Launch occurred in 2016, arrival in 2018, sample capture in 2020, and Earth return in 2023.

The Asteroid Hunter works on several levels. It is a marvelous adventure story and a real-life space thriller about a bold exploratory mission. It is a marvelous examination of the process involved in conducting a science mission. It presents the scientific, technical and bureaucratic challenges to be overcome. It is also a delightful personal story, revealing the hopes and aspirations of a man with a personal mission to unlock the secrets of the origins of our universe. It is an exhilarating book.

© 2024 Mark Lardas

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