The “Security” element of the OSIRIS-REx mission, therefore, is aimed at
refining our methods of plotting asteroid trajectories (which is hard to do
accurately due to the so-called “Yarkovsky effect”, an uneven impetus that
changes depending on each object’s shape and rotation). Asteroid impacts
are, of course, staple Hollywood fare, and usually involve a heroic team of
square-jawed astronauts saving the day at the last moment, possibly with the
help of multiple nuclear devices. Though OSIRIS-REx is part of a real-life
effort to deflect catastrophic collisions, Nasa will only say, somewhat
vaguely, that “the probe will help devise future strategies to mitigate
possible Earth impacts from celestial objects”.
“OSIRIS-REx will explore our past and help determine our destiny,” said Drake.
“It will return samples of pristine organic material that scientists think
might have seeded the sterile early Earth with the building blocks that led
to life. It will also provide the knowledge that will guide humanity in
deflecting any future asteroid that could collide with Earth, allowing
humanity to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs.”
Michael Julian Drake was born on July 8 1946 in Bristol. He read Geology at
the Victoria University of Manchester and studied for his PhD at the
University of Oregon, before a year as a postdoctoral research associate at
the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, near Tucson, Arizona.
He joined the University of Arizona itself in 1973 and remained for his entire
career, meeting his wife in America, and eventually taking American
There he played a significant part in some of Nasa’s highest-profile space
missions, including the Cassini mission to explore Saturn; the Mars Odyssey
Orbiter; and the Phoenix Mars Lander, which touched down on the Red Planet
in 2008 in search of traces of life (and which Drake operated on the surface
of Mars from the Arizona campus). On the Orbiter mission, Drake was
responsible for the Gamma Ray spectrometer, which first detected the
presence of ice on Mars.
Drake, who published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers, was appointed head of
the Planetary Sciences department at the university in 1994 (and Regents’
Professor in 2005). He was named a fellow of the Meteoritical Society in
1980 (president in 1997); the American Geophysical Union in 2002; and the
Geochemical Society in 2002. He served on a host of Nasa committees and was
awarded the Leonard Medal of the Meteoritical Society in 2004.
Michael Drake, who had liver cancer, is survived by his wife, Gail, and their
son and daughter.
His father also survives him, as does asteroid 9022 Drake, which was
discovered on August 14 1988 by the astronomer Carolyn Shoemaker and named
in his honour.
Michael Drake, born July 8 1946, died September 21 2011