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Honeywell Tech Helps NASA Bring First Asteroid Sample Down To Earth

Honeywell Tech Helps NASA Bring First Asteroid Sample Down To Earth

Ultra-precise Honeywell miniature inertial measurement units (MIMUs) played a starring role in NASA’s historic OSIRIS-REx multi-year mission to collect a geological sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and bring it back to Earth.

Without landing, the OSIRIS spacecraft dropped its sample return capsule (SRC) in the Utah desert Sept. 24 from an altitude of 63,000 miles. Then, it continued on an extended mission to explore asteroid Apophis, still using data from the Honeywell MIMU to keep it on course.

“On long-duration interplanetary missions like OSIRIS-REx, the Honeywell MIMU needs to deliver extraordinary precision and reliability because it provides critical data to the spacecraft’s navigation system,” said Sharon Coogan, Offering Director for Space Navigation at Honeywell. “Honeywell MIMU technology has supported about 200 missions and spacecraft applications and accumulated almost 15 million operating hours since its introduction 25 years ago – without a single mission failure.”

The Honeywell MIMU uses digital ring laser gyroscopes, highly accurate accelerometers and radiation hardened microelectronics to determine the spacecraft’s rotational rate and velocity. For the OSIRIS-REx mission, the MIMU provided essential data the navigation system used to maneuver the spacecraft in every phase of its seven-year roundtrip to asteroid Bennu and back to Earth.


Honeywell MIMU Provided Vital Nav Data to OSIRIS-REx

“Our MIMU gave the navigation computer vital data needed to fly about 200 million miles one way to the asteroid, establish an orbit, map the object’s surface, and execute a touch-and-go operation with surgical precision to suck up surface material much like a vacuum cleaner,” said Gerald Martinez, Honeywell Senior Space Systems Program Manager. “The unit performed exactly as specified throughout the OSIRIS-REx mission, and we’re very excited that it is still supporting the OSIRIS-APEX mission as the spacecraft makes its way to Apophis.”

Developed for NASA by Lockheed Martin, the OSIRIS spacecraft is equipped with redundant Honeywell MIMUs to provide an extra layer of reliability, Martinez continued. “Mission success depends on the flawless performance and dependability of our MIMUs throughout their long service life on crewed and uncrewed spacecraft and satellites of all shapes and sizes.”

Coogan agrees. “We take enormous pride in enabling important missions like OSIRIS-REx and OSIRIS-APEX,” she said. “Our team in Clearwater, Fla., is staffed by some of the world’s foremost experts in space guidance and navigation and everyone is dedicated to building products that assure mission success. Our MIMUs typically exceed their expected mission life, which enables them to support extended missions like OSIRIS-APEX with confidence.”  


Compact MIMU Continues Legacy of Performance  

Honeywell innovators pack a lot of performance in a small package with the MIMU. It weighs about nine pounds and, at a height of 6.7 inches and diameter of 9.4 inches, is similar in size and shape to a large vegetable can from a warehouse store, Martinez said.

“But despite its compact size and modest appearance, the MIMU has compiled an impressive resume,” he said. “Our units have flown missions to the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Pluto, and can be found on dozens of Earth-orbiting satellites that support national security and navigation missions and provide communications and GPS services that touch our lives every day.”

Honeywell launched the self-funded MIMU development program in 1994 by packaging radiation-hardened electronics with the company’s legendary GG1320 ring laser gyroscope (RLG), part of an RLG family of products that has recorded more than 6 billion hours of operation in space applications so far.

The combination created a highly capable space inertial guidance and navigation solution called an inertial reference unit (IRU). With the addition of accelerometers, Honeywell introduced the IMU version of the MIMU to the portfolio in 1998. Honeywell currently offers both IRU and IMU versions of the product, as well as gyros, accelerometers and microelectronics for integration in customer-designed systems.


Bennu Sample Thrills NASA Scientists

For the OSIRIS-REx mission, the proof of mission success is measured by the cup, which is the approximate volume of rocks and dust the spacecraft dropped to Earth in September. The sample size actually exceeded scientists' expectations because some extra material was found on the outside of the collector head, canister lid and base of the sample container.

As they study the Bennu sample scientists are looking for clues to indicate whether asteroids colliding with Earth billions of years ago brought water and other key ingredients for life to the planet. They were excited to find evidence of carbon and water in their initial “quick look” examination of the sample.  

Their excitement is contagious, according to Coogan, a self-described “space geek” who has spent 34 years at Honeywell, including more than 25 working with the MIMU team.

“The Honeywell MIMU team is passionate about what we are doing to help humankind understand its place in the universe and how life began on planet Earth,” she said. “To a person, we are dedicated to flawless execution to help our space customers achieve their vital missions. Our only goal is perfection.” 

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