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Beneath clear skies, Karen Hendrix and family members watched from Cape Canaveral in Florida Thursday evening as an unmanned spacecraft blasted off for a seven-year mission to an asteroid only slightly larger than New York’s Empire State Building.

For Hendrix, an engineer for Viavi Solutions in Santa Rosa, the launch of the 19-story-tall Atlas V rocket at 7:05 p.m. Eastern time was especially memorable.

Not only was it her first viewing of a rocket launch, but she had helped design a key piece for an instrument that will accompany the spacecraft to Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid named for a mythical Egyptian deity.

“It was amazing,” said Hendrix, one of three Viavi staff members who took their families to the launch. “I was surprised how much more impressive it was in person.”

The setting sun lit up the side of the spacecraft, she said, and the audience of 8,000 saw the white launch plume long before the sound of the takeoff reached their viewing areas about a mile away.

Viavi’s contribution, a tiny optical filter, will help a NASA-designed spectrometer identify the chemicals on the surface of carbon-rich Bennu before a small sample there is collected for study back on Earth.

The optical filter is 12 millimeters square, a size a penny could cover. The filter will split sunlight reflected from the asteroid into a great range of component wavelengths, something like a prism splitting light into a visible rainbow.

That splitting will allow the visible- and infrared-range spectrometer to distinguish the chemicals present on the asteroid’s surface based upon what scientists call their spectral signatures, the makeup of the spectrum of light that is reflected rather than absorbed.

“Each chemical has a signature,” explained Hendrix, a principal filter design engineer with 35 years of experience.

The study of Bennu has the potential for “revolutionizing our understanding of the early solar system,” according to NASA’s press materials.

Such carbon-rich asteroids have changed little since forming over 4.5 billion years ago and may contain organic molecules, including amino acids, “that may have contributed to the formation of life on Earth and are important factors in determining the potential for life elsewhere in the solar system.”

The mission also may help scientists better plan for the possibility of this particular asteroid one day striking our planet. Bennu, which NASA discovered in 1999, has a 1 in 2,700 chance, or a 0.037 percent probability, of striking Earth sometime between 2175 and 2199, according to the space agency.

The Bennu space mission is the latest in which Viavi is playing a role.

The business, formerly known as JDSU and before that Optical Coating Laboratory Inc., or OCLI, has provided coated optical devices for every manned NASA space flight back to the 1960s, as well as for some unmanned missions.

Optical filters made by Milpitas-based Viavi also have been used in such areas as telecom fiber optic systems, satellite imaging and weather instruments and, more recently, hand-held spectrometers that can identify specific drugs and other substances.

The latest space mission is formally known as OSIRIS-REx, an acronym for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer.”

The SUV-size spacecraft, with twin wing-like solar panels, will spend two years traveling to Bennu.

The journey includes orbiting the sun for a year and obtaining a “Earth-gravity assist” to speed it on its way to the asteroid.

The craft should reach Bennu by the summer of 2018 and begin more than two years of study alongside the roughly spherical asteroid with a diameter of about 1,600 feet.

A highlight will be when the explorer’s robotic arm contacts Bennu for about five seconds in order to release a burst of nitrogen gas at the surface and collect rocks and other material in its sampler head.

The aim is to collect between 2 ounces and 4.4 pounds of material for study.

The spacecraft is slated to once more draw near Earth in September 2023, when it will release a Sample Return Capsule for a parachute landing in Utah.

Scientists will retrieve the capsule’s contents for study, while the spacecraft remains outside Earth’s atmosphere and goes into orbit around the sun.

Viavi’s filter is part of the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer, or OVIRS, one of five high-tech instruments for exploring the planet.

The OVIRS will help scientists in the selection of possible locations for sample collection.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.

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