Issue 16
Monday, 25 September 2017
Charles Darwin University
Dr Terry McClafferty has collected precious data for NASA. Photo: Julianne Osborne
Dr Terry McClafferty has collected precious data for NASA. Photo: Julianne Osborne

CDU researcher collects data for NASA

By Leanne Miles

A Charles Darwin University researcher recently joined a team of stargazers from around Australia to capture the path of a NASA spacecraft on its way to the asteroid “Bennu”.

Dr Terry McClafferty collected precious data as part of the observation campaign for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft “slingshot” or Earth Gravity Assist manoeuvre, which brought the spacecraft close enough to Earth to be viewed through high-end cameras.

Darwin was one of several strategic locations around Australia where members of the Desert Fireball Network (DFN) led by Curtin University were stationed to optimise viewing angles of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx.

On Friday, 22 September the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made a rare close approach to Earth, using the planet’s gravity to slingshot itself closer to the asteroid Bennu. The DFN team members stationed across Australia recorded a 3D triangulated track above Australia.

Dr McClafferty, who has been involved in the DFN project since its inception in 2002, used a high-end DSLR camera to track the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft across the sky alongside Curtin University geology student Morgan Cox.

“The team beamed the information from each viewpoint to enable NASA to create a 3D triangulated track of its slingshot around the Earth,” Dr McClafferty said.

The images collected during the Earth Gravity Assist manoeuvre represented the last opportunity for Earth-based observers to see the spacecraft as it approached and retreated from its closest position over Earth, about 17,000 km above - until it returns to Earth in 2023 carrying a sample from asteroid Bennu.

Dr McClafferty said he became involved in the project after meeting Curtin University Professor and team leader of the Desert Fireball Network Phil Bland in 2002 while working as regional manager of the Western Australian Museum in Kalgoorlie.

“Phil had come to Australia from London to look for asteroid specimens, so we used to go on expeditions to remote areas to install cameras to capture incoming fireballs,” Dr McClafferty said.

“He was also trialling cameras, which back then were the size of a refrigerator, to track fireballs. The ones we used on Friday were about the size of a shoebox.”

The OSIRIS-REx Observation Campaign in Australia is a collaboration between NASA and Curtin University that aims to highlight the capabilities of the DFN and planetary science research in Australia, bringing the public along for the ride.

For more information on the project visit W: