Industry veteran and emerging leader participated in historic mission

September 24 will be a momentous day in space exploration, when NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and the first-ever U.S. asteroid sample – believed to be formed in the early solar system 4.5 billion years ago – returns to Earth.

The sample is from Bennu, an asteroid that NASA says will render pristine material – rocks and dust collected from the asteroid’s surface in 2020 – offering generations of scientists a window into the time when the Sun and planets were forming.

Two Stellar Solutions engineers were involved in this mission:

  • Joe Witte, Senior Systems Engineering Consultant, is a Launch Systems Engineer supporting GSFC TSIS-2 and DAVINCI missions. Prior to joining Stellar, he spent 41 years at Lockheed Martin, where he was the Launch Systems Engineer for OSIRIS-Rex among seven interplanetary NASA missions and was Planetary Protection Lead for all missions since 2000.

    In his role in the project, Joe conducted all the planning and preparation for the launch campaign besides the normal launch vehicle contractor coordination as well as supporting Assembly Integration and Test especially during LV hardware and launch environment testing.

    “OSIRIS-REx was significant because of its mission goal of retrieving a sample for the mineralogical science investigation and for overcoming the mission operation challenges posed by an asteroid surface that was rougher than anticipated. Working with the spacecraft and science teams and the NASA team getting to launch created a family bond that paid off during the long mission operations phase of observation, sampling and now culminating in the sample retrieval,” he says.

  • Erin Farrell, now an instrument systems engineer at Stellar, worked on the project in 2014 when she was a summer intern at Stellar, assigned to NASA Goddard. She worked on the shipping container for the OVIRS instrument, a spectrometer which scanned the asteroid to assist in the selection of the sample site.

    After graduating from Penn State with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, she joined Stellar where she has held various systems engineering roles on ICESat-2, TIRS-2, and Landsat-9. She earned an M.S. Mechanical Engineering, at University of Maryland in 2021.

    Today she looks back on the opportunity to work on this project at the early stages of her career with gratitude. “I was honored to contribute even in a finite way to a mission that will expand our knowledge of the solar system.”

“The OSIRIS-Rex project demonstrates the power and potential of space exploration and research. We are very proud to have in our own Stellar orbit Joe Witte who played an integral role in the project, and Erin Farrell who participated in it at the launch point in her career,” said Janet Grondin, Stellar Solutions CEO.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will release the sample capsule for a safe landing in the Utah desert. The capsule will pierce Earth’s atmosphere at 8:42 a.m. MDT (10:42 a.m. EDT), traveling about 27,650 mph (44,500 kph). Parachutes will bring the capsule’s descent to a safe landing speed. At touchdown, the capsule will have slowed to about 11 mph (18 kph) Finally, just 13 minutes after entering the atmosphere, the capsule will be on Earth for the first time in seven years, awaiting the recovery team’s approach.

Once secured, the capsule will be flown by helicopter to a temporary clean room on the military range and then prepared for transport to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston the next day. Scientists at Johnson will care for the sample, store it, and distribute it to the OSIRIS-REx science team and other scientists worldwide. Most of the sample will be available upon request for generations to come.

NASA will be broadcasting the landing starting 10 a.m. EDT on NASA TV, the NASA app, and on their official website.

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