Engineer Shares Her Passion for NASA’s Asteroid Return Mission and Search and Rescues

Anjani Polit, Mission Implementation Systems Engineer for OSIRIS-REx, pauses during a visit to Iceland.
Credits: Courtesy Anjani Polit

Name: Anjani Polit

Title: Mission Implementation Systems Engineer for OSIRIS-REx

Education: B.A. in Geology, Pomona College, Claremont, California. Master of Science Degree in Geological Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno

Superpower Skill:  Building Consensus

Hobbies: Hiking, volunteering for the Southern Arizona Rescue Association

Anjani Polit’s eyes light up when she recalls a helicopter rescue as a trained volunteer for Southern Arizona Rescue Association(SARA).  

“On a hillside located in the mountains, north of Tucson, Arizona.”An injured climber was at the bottom of a cliff,” said Polit. “Except the cliff was way up

Polit had some basic helicopter operations training and knew how to work around them but was not yet a member of the specialized helicopter team. Nonetheless, a senior member of the helicopter team, another volunteer, wanted Polit to come because of her training with rope rescues. The ground crew was already working its way up the mountain.

“The interesting thing about this rescue is that we didn’t know what kind of situation we were flying into,” said Polit. “We brought a lot of gear so that we would be prepared for anything.”

people on cliff lowering person on a rope

Anjani Polit training with an Arizona search and rescue organization.Credits: Courtesy SARA – Southern Arizona Rescue Association

Polit says there are many similarities between her volunteer work with search and rescue and her work with NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) science operations. Both are complex systems that require a lot of coordination. 

OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission. On October 20, 2020, the spacecraft will briefly touch Bennu and collect a sample of dust and pebbles—delivering that sample back to Earth for study in 2023.  

SARA, a non-profit, all volunteer Search and Rescue organization, requires more than 100 hours of extensive training before volunteers are allowed to go on a rescue. Even then, there is medical training and even more training for specialized skills, like technical ropes training.

Polit leads a team of engineers and scientists responsible for planning OSIRIS-REx science observations and have spent the last two years exploring the unknown world of asteroid Bennu with OSIRIS-REx, scouting for the best sample collection site. Researchers believe that asteroids like Bennu are time capsules of the formation of our solar system and could answer questions about how the buildings blocks of life ended up on Earth and possibly elsewhere in our solar system.

Her favorite observations came from the reconnaissance flybys and sorties, during which OSIRIS-REx flew over the sample sites at altitudes as low as 250 meters.

“They were the first sample-site-specific observations we took – targeting only a small area of the surface specifically for sample site characterization and selection,” said Polit. “It was particularly fascinating to see the resulting images.”

Occasionally, when there was extra time in OSIRIS-REx reconnaissance observation windows, Polit’s team got to explore the asteroid outside the candidate sample sites.  They worked with the science team to identify possible locations for these additional observations or targets of opportunity.

“We got to be a little bit creative with our observations,” said Polit. “It was fun.”

Polit’s interest in planetary geology research began as an undergraduate at Pomona College, a small liberal arts college based in Claremont, California.  She continued studying planetary geology in graduate school, earning a Master of Science degree in geological engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno.  As she was finishing her Master’s degree, she applied to work at the University of Arizona in Tucson to become a Targeting Specialist on the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. HiRISE is an extremely high-resolution camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). A few years later, she joined the OSIRIS-REx team.

Much of Polit’s job involves building consensus about the direction of OSIRIS-REx science observations among four major mission teams: science, science operations, navigation, and spacecraft operations. Regular and transparent communication was essential for everyone to know where the team had flexibility, or where teams faced hard constraints.

Working with OSIRIS-REx scientists, Polit figures out their top needs and resolves any conflicting desires for science observations. Then, she talks to the navigation team to find out if it can position the spacecraft in a trajectory that will allow scientists to accomplish the observations.

“I had to make sure they understood what the scientists were trying to get from the observation,” said Polit. “I would also have to coordinate closely with the spacecraft team. They would tell us the constraints on an observation based on spacecraft power or temperature limits.”

As Paul Harvey, American radio commentator and news columnist, always said, “Now, for the Rest of the Story.”

On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016, in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Polit’s helicopter could not land on the mountain’s rough terrain. The helicopter hovered a few feet about the rocky terrain, close enough for Polit and the rescue team to hop off and begin rock scrambling to the patient, who had a knee injury. The ground crew met the helicopter team on the cliff. Together they carried the patient to a spot where the helicopter could pick him up.  After the helicopter lifted off, Polit walked down the mountain with the ground crew.  

Polit discovered SARA while reading an online newspaper article about a rescue that took place in Tucson, Arizona. She was fascinated and wanted to know more so she attended a public meeting and filled out an application.

“I was super excited to accept a volunteer position,” said Polit. “I like hiking and being outside and also giving back to my community. It’s been a huge part of my life for the last seven years.”

Participating in more than 100 rescues, Polit took a break from search and rescue work this year to focus on the OSIRIS-REx sample-collection mission. She plans to volunteer again after a successful TAG event.  

On August 11, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made its closest approach to the surface of Bennu, coming within 131 feet (40 meters) of the primary sample site. The four-hour rehearsal took OSIRIS-REx through the first three of four sampling sequences.  

“It was so gratifying to see how well it went,” Polit said.

The final sequence, touch down on Bennu, will occur October 20, 2020.

For more information about OSIRIS-Rex, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/osiris-rex

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