OLA, Canada's Contribution to OSIRIS-REx

Funded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Canada is contributing a laser instrument known as OLA (short for the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter). OLA is an advanced lidar system that is a hybrid of the lidar on the CSA's weather station aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander and an instrument flown on the 2005 US Air Force eXperimental Satellite System-11 (XSS-11). Both instruments were built by a Canadian company, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). MDA is also the prime contractor for OLA and is designing, building and testing the instrument for the CSA.

A lidar works by firing short laser pulses that can measure precisely the distance to the surface by timing the delay for the light to bounce back from the surface to the sensor. OLA will scan and measure the entire surface of the asteroid to create a highly accurate 3D model of the asteroid, and provide mission scientists with unprecedented information on the asteroid's shape, topography, distribution of boulders, rocks and other surface features.

Artist's rendition of OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter

Artist's rendition of OLA on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. (Credit: MDA)

The Principal Investigator for the Canadian science team is Dr. Alan Hildebrand, a meteorite and asteroid expert based at the University of Calgary. Dr. Michael Daly of York University, an expert on lidar technology and former member of the Canadian Phoenix Mars Lander team, is OLA's instrument scientist. The OLA team also includes researchers from University of Winnipeg (Dr. Edward Cloutis), University of Toronto (Dr. Rebecca Ghent) and the University of British Columbia (Dr. Catherine Johnson).

In exchange for providing the OLA instrument to the mission, the CSA will receive 4% of the total returned sample. Having access to part of the sample will enable the Canadian science team to conduct research that could revolutionize our understanding of the Solar System's history, how our planet formed, and possibly the origin of water and life on Earth.

For decades, scientists in Canada have been studying through telescopes or by recovering fragments of asteroids that have landed on Canadian soil through meteorite impacts. However, when meteors enter our atmosphere, they are subjected to extreme temperatures, baking away some of the key clues scientists are searching for. Journeying to the asteroid will validate what we have learned though telescopes and meteorites, and help us understand asteroids up close by bringing back a pristine, unaltered sample.

Did you know? The CSA's first asteroid mission is NEOSSat, a pint-sized but powerful space telescope to study the distribution of asteroids near Earth and detect many new asteroids too close to the Sun to be seen by telescopes on the ground.