Humberto Campins grew up looking at the night sky and reading The Little Prince.
The children’s story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is about a man who crashes his plane in the middle of the Sahara Desert. While he’s making repairs, a boy shows up. He is the Little Prince and he comes from asteroid B-612. The rest of the story focuses on the prince’s encounters with strange beings on multiple planets. It’s an allegory of human nature.
Aside from bringing Campins warm memories of his childhood, the book foreshadowed his future. The University of Central Florida professor would dedicate his life to understanding asteroids. And this week, he is part of a NASA first. He’s is a member of the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission to retrieve a sample of nearby asteroid Bennu.
“Asteroids hold clues about how our solar system formed, they can be resources for space exploration, and impact hazards to Earth,” Campins said. “Until now, NASA’s never had a chance to get a pristine sample to study. The meteorites we’ve had crashed on Earth and lost most of their mass in their passage through our atmosphere. This mission will bring a sample home in its raw state and I’m thrilled to be part of the historic project.”
This is NASA’s fourth sample-return mission, after Apollo (lunar samples), Genesis (solar wind samples), and Stardust (comet dust samples). But it is the first NASA trip to retrieve samples from an asteroid.
The main goal of the mission, which is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 8, is to find and return to Earth organic molecules and minerals from Bennu’s surface. Scientists also believe that asteroids are rich enough in the right materials to be harnessed as fueling stations for future space missions – perhaps even Mars. Another goal is to collect information to help Earth deflect this or other asteroids, should it become necessary. There are hundreds or near-Earth asteroids and every so often there are news stories warning residents that one of them is heading on a collision course.
Asteroid Bennu, which is OSIRIS-REx’s target could potentially hit earth, but not for 160 years give or take a year, Campins said.
“That gives us time to learn about asteroids and figure out a plan, should we need one,” he said. “As individuals we do not need to worry about an asteroid impact with Earth because it’s so unlikely to occur during our lifetimes. However, as a civilization we do need to plan ahead because impacts have happened and will happen again unless we stop them.”
Campins will work with UCF associate Professor Yan Fernandez to analyze images from the spacecraft once it is in orbit around Bennu from 2018 to 2020. Based on the photographs and other data, they will recommend potential targets for the spacecraft to collect a sample.
During the two years, Campins said, “We will prepare the instruments and test the software.” Campins will also continue to work on his research, teaching and educating the public through various community events, including a lecture at the Orlando Science Center’s Science Night Live on Sept. 17.
But he also knows how to relax. The Orlando resident is a member of the Orlando Museum of Art, dances ballroom and Argentine tango and has become a yoga instructor. It all helps with stress and to achieve balance between the left and right brain, he said.
He can’t really explain why asteroids became his muse when studying science in college. It led him to the University of Kansas, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in astronomy. Then it was off to the University of Arizona where he earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences. As a graduate student he was named a representative to the Committee for Peaceful Uses of Outer Space of the General Assembly of the United Nations.
From there it has been an impressive ride. He served as a visiting professor at the Primera Escuela Iberoamericana de Astrobiología in Caracas, Venezuela, and at the Escuela Latinoamericana de Astronomía at the Observatorio Nacional in Río de Janeiro, Brasil. At the University of Florida he was a professor of astronomy and director at the Florida Space Grant Consortium from 1994 to 1998. He joined UCF in 2002 to launch the university’s Planetary Sciences Group. The group started with one faculty member. Today it has nine and is considered one of the top 10 programs in the nation in terms of publications and winning NASA and NSF grants.
In 2010, Campins headed the team that discovered water ice and organic molecules on the asteroid 24 Themis and later on 65 Cybele. It’s that expertise and his passion for asteroids that landed him an invitation to join the OSIRIS-REx team, which is led by Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Also in 2010, Campins received the Don Quixote award for Professional of the Year from the Metro Orlando Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Campins’ research has been funded by multiple agencies for the past 10 years including NASA, the National Science Foundation, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Florida Space Grant Consortium. He’s conducted research at observatories around the world, including Arizona, Hawaii, Chile, France, Spain and Italy.
Aside from OSIRIS-REx, he’s also a co-investigator in UCF’s Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science (CLASS) funded by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI). There’s even an asteroid (#3327 Campins) named after him.
He is eagerly awaiting the OSIRIS-REx launch and will be on the Space Coast for the launch alongside some very proud Knights, including colleagues, friends and students.
“Yes, I’m eager,” he said. “There are so many exciting events to look forward to – the launch, the encounter of the spacecraft with Bennu, and in 2023 when the sample is brought back to Earth.”