Two Space Adventures One Silent Advocate

Nov. 1, 2021

A University of Arizona graduate has quietly become a partner in the university’s roles in both high-profile projects.

The anonymous supporter first gave $1 million in 2020 to afford the university’s astronomers more time on the GMT when it's completed and begins operations. That gift was quickly followed by another for $2 million, of which $500,000 further contributed to GMT. The balance will ensure UArizona scientists can make the most of analysis when the OSIRIS-REx craft returns a sample from its long journey.

"I am immensely grateful for this donor's vision and support of space science exploration at the University of Arizona," says university President Robert C. Rob-bins. "One of the most thrilling aspects of both of these projects is realizing how many members of our faculty and staff, as well as our students, are contributing to their success. It is incredible to have a graduate continue engaging with the university and supporting these missions.”

Once the GMT begins operations in Chile's Atacama Desert, it will have a lifespan of 50 years or more. UArizona astronomers will begin with two major focus areas, says Buell Jannuzi, head of the Department of Astronomy and director of Stew-ard Observatory. They'll use the GMT's advanced optics and largest-ever mirrors to search for signs of life on exoplanets, which orbit stars other than the sun, and to study the early history of the universe.

The OSIRIS-REx craft began its trip home in May after nearly five years in space. The asteroid sample it’s carrying is due to reach Earth in September 2023. Following initial processing, a team led by the mission’s principal investigator, Dante Lauretta, will begin detailed analysis at UArizona.

Thanks in part to the anonymous supporter, Lauretta and other experts, including assistant professor and cosmochemist Jessica Barnes, will examine the sample from the asteroid Bennu with their instrument of choice — a nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometer. The project is funded in part by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation as well as by the university.

The tool allows investigation to the nanometer scale, Barnes says. She expects the instrument to provide a wealth of information over many years without destroying the material, thereby extending the discovery timeline.

Lauretta and Barnes learned about the gift right around the time they confirmed the OSIRIS-REx craft had successfully collected more than the minimum amount of sample material needed for successful analysis, says Lauretta.

"I was overwhelmed with emotion and joy and excitement — for Jessica, for the university, for our samples, for science, for our students and staff and everybody that's going to be involved in the continuation of this amazing scientific adventure," he says.\

—Katy Smith