OSIRIS-REx – What’s in a Name?

The Art Project

Today we officially unveiled the mural celebrating the University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission. To create this public art, we teamed up with the students of Professor Alfred Quiroz’s fall semester mural painting class at the UA School of Art. Between August and December 2014, the students worked together to produce this great work of art.

The mural covers a 20 by 60 foot area on the exterior west wall of the Michael J. Drake Building, 1415 N. Sixth Ave., Tucson. The building will become mission control for about 250 scientists and engineers when the spacecraft arrives at asteroid Bennu in August 2018. Professor Quiroz, who has been teaching at the university for 25 years, said this mural, and the accompanying Phoenix Mars lander mural, are the biggest mural projects he’s ever worked on. These projects are unique because they join two usually separate departments in accomplishing a single goal. It is another great example of the intersection between art and science.

The OSIRIS-REx mural now graces the west wall of the Michael J. Drake building at the University of Arizona.

The OSIRIS-REx mural now graces the west wall of the Michael J. Drake building at the University of Arizona.

The Origin of OSIRIS-REx

The mural depicts the Egyptian god Osiris from whom the mission gets its name. It also includes multiple views of the spacecraft, the asteroid, and the round-trip journey to Bennu and back.

Mike and I in 2008 - at the dawn of the OSIRIS-REx New Frontiers effort.

Mike and I in 2008 – at the dawn of the OSIRIS-REx New Frontiers effort.

Before designing the graphic elements of the mural, I took the opportunity to brief the students on the basics of the mission, as well as the mythological inspiration for the mission name. The story goes back ten years. Michael Drake, the original principal investigator on OSIRIS-REx, first asked me to help him develop the mission concept in 2004. My job was to define and implement the science investigation for the mission. I started jotting down the big ideas that an asteroid sample return mission would go after. My first list included the words Origins, Spectroscopy, Resources, and Security – these were the themes that I would build the mission science plan around. I realized right away that I had almost spelled out Osiris – all that were needed were a couple of vowels (hence the addition of the words Interpretation and Identification to the mission acronym). I also realized that there were many connections between our mission and Osiris, as I discuss below.

Science Themes

OSIRIS-REx is an acronym that captures the major scientific objectives of the mission.

OSIRIS-REx is an acronym that captures the major scientific objectives of the mission.

Origins: The original “building blocks” of the planets are preserved as asteroids and comets. Some of that material has been delivered naturally to Earth in the form of meteorites and cosmic dust but, with the exception of asteroid Vesta, we do not know which objects the meteorites and cosmic dust come from. Further, it is likely that meteorites falling to Earth have been modified relative to their pristine state in space. For example, the Tagish Lake meteorite fell in winter onto ice in Northern Canada and was preserved. Later when the meteorite was raised to room temperature, there was outgassing which altered the composition of the meteorite. By returning pristine samples from a near-Earth asteroid OSIRIS-REx will provide an inventory of the processes and materials available at the start of geological history. Of particular interest is the inventory of organic material, which might have provided the prebiotic seeds that allowed eventual development of life on Earth.

Spectral Interpretation: We have a vast library of spectra of asteroids and a similar library of spectra of meteorites. However, the most common asteroids in the inner main belt, S-types, seem rare amongst our most common meteorite types, ordinary chondrites. It has been suggested that “space weathering” is responsible for this discrepancy. OSIRIS-REx specifically addresses the meteorite-asteroid connection by obtaining “ground truth” and making laboratory, telescope, and spacecraft measurements on the same material.

Resource Identification: Earth’s gravity well imposes a premium on lifting materials into space. Could materials already in space be used to produce useful products such as water, fuel, and radiation shielding in order to mitigate against this penalty? An inventory of materials on the surface of near-Earth objects is essential for intelligent design of any technology to produce useful resources. Understanding material properties of near-Earth object surfaces is essential to evaluating their suitability for radiation shielding of astronauts from galactic cosmic rays. OSIRIS-REx will conduct an inventory of available materials and surface properties of asteroid Bennu.

Security: It is now recognized that the Earth has been hit many times in solar system history by asteroids and comets, resulting in massive extinctions of species followed by a rapid evolution of new species. We are the first species on Earth capable of protecting ourselves by mitigating against another asteroidal or cometary impact. In order to deflect an asteroid or comet, we need to know the material properties of the surface, specifically the way directed energy couples with the surface. And to predict an impact, we need precise determinations of near-Earth object orbits and a sophisticated understanding of non-Keplerian forces such as the Yarkovsky Effect. OSIRIS-REx specifically addresses asteroid surface material properties and the Yarkovsky Effect.

Regolith Explorer: For the first two rounds of proposal development, the mission was simply named OSIRIS. These proposals were to the NASA Discovery Program. Once we decided to move up a class to the NASA New Frontiers Program, we needed a name for this bigger, better version of the mission. We decided to keep the OSIRIS name, since we had developed a good reputation under this brand and added “REx”, for “Regolith Explorer”. “Rex” means “king” in Latin and regolith is the name for rocky asteroid surface material. We also felt that the name sounded like a dinosaur – and we all know how their days on Earth ended . . .

The Myth of Osiris

The story of Osiris loosely parallels that of OSIRIS-REx. Osiris, in his original form, is thought to have spread an understanding of agriculture throughout the Nile Delta, hence making modern civilization possible and, in a very real sense, bringing life to the ancient world. He was probably an early leader in one of the settlements of the Delta who had quite a large following. OSIRIS-REx seeks to return samples of a primitive asteroid that may contain the “seeds of life” that led to the origin of life on Earth.

Judgment scene from the Book of the Dead. The dead man (Hunefer) is presented by the falcon-headed Horus to Osiris, seated in his shrine with Isis and Nephthys. (British Museum)

Judgment scene from the Book of the Dead. The dead man (Hunefer) is presented by the falcon-headed Horus to Osiris, seated in his shrine with Isis and Nephthys. (British Museum)

Osiris’ death also has some parallels with our mission. Many versions of the myth suggest that his brother Set, plotted his assassination because he wanted his throne. Set fooled Osiris into getting into a coffin specially designed to fit him alone, which Set then shut, sealed with lead, and threw into the Nile. Similarly, OSIRIS-REx has a specially designed sample-return capsule to transport the precious sample of Bennu back to the surface of the Earth.

After his death, Osiris’ wife, Isis, found him embedded in a tree trunk. She managed to remove the coffin and open it, but Osiris was already dead. Set divided the body into many pieces, which he distributed around the world. Isis recovered most of the parts of Osiris’ body, made replicas of them, and distributed them to several locations, which then became centers of Osiris worship. OSIRIS-REx will collect samples of regolith that, once brought back to Earth, will be distributed to the international scientific community for analysis in world-class labs. The labs will become centers of scientific research centered on understanding the formation of the solar system and the origin of life on Earth.

Osiris, like asteroids, represents both life and death. After Osiris’ death, the other gods were impressed by the devotion of Isis and resurrected Osiris as the god of the underworld. Because of his death and resurrection, Osiris became associated with the flooding and retreating of the Nile and thus with the crops along the Nile valley. He was revered as a god associated with water and the annual death and rebirth of the land. In the same way, asteroids like Bennu are thought to have brought the original water and prebiotic organic molecules to Earth. Asteroids also have played a large role in the evolution life on our planet. Large asteroid impacts likely resulted in large-scale catastrophe and mass extinctions. However, this destruction led to new opportunities and the subsequent rise of new species. Indeed, we probably own our own origins to the demise of the dinosaurs as a consequence of the Chicxulub impact in the Yucatan, a “billion year” event that occurred 65 million years ago.

The OSIRIS-REx mural team gathered on January 22, 2015 to formally unveil the artwork.

The OSIRIS-REx mural team gathered on January 22, 2015 to formally unveil the artwork.

The UA art students embraced many of these themes as they designed and painted the commemorative mural. In addition, a portrait of Michael Drake appears at the bottom of the mural. It was a real pleasure to collaborate with Professor Quiroz and his talented group of students. The result is an amazing work of creative art and a fitting tribute to the mission and Michael Drake, our leader during the early stages of mission development.


  1. joe lauretta · · Reply

    Hi Dante,

    Nice tie-in to the Osiris legend on your article. The mural looks great, I like the time sequence, it should go on the website. Compliments to the group of artists.


  2. […] Earth. He and other guest columnists like me have also discussed the design and construction of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and its instruments (OCAMS, OLA, OVIRS, OTES, and REXIS). This column introduces another […]

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