NASA is less than a month away from launching a spacecraft designed to return a sample of an asteroid to Earth for the first time.
Scientists are hoping the seven-year mission, set to launch on Sept. 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, will give them information about the makeup of the solar system, about life on Earth and the potential of life elsewhere in the universe, and about asteroids and how they could affect Earth.
“This mission exemplifies our nation’s quest to boldly go and study our solar system and beyond to better understand the universe and our place in it,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “NASA science is the greatest engine of scientific discovery on the planet and [this mission] embodies our directorate’s goal to innovate, explore, discover and inspire.”
The spacecraft knows as OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) is set to launch on top of an Atlas V 411 rocket.
The spacecraft is expected to travel 1.2 billion miles and reach the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018, and, while flying in formation with the asteroid, will begin making observations of it.
The spacecraft will, for instance, track the asteroid's thermal emissions, which give scientists an idea of how the sun’s heat is affecting its trajectory. Osiris-REx also will look for natural satellites, measure its acceleration, map its surface and study its geological properties.
The spacecraft then will map out potential sample sites.
Osiris-REx will not, however, land on Bennu. Instead, it will draw close to it and use a robotic arm to reach out and release a five-second burst of nitrogen gas, kicking up loose rocks and soil that can then be captured by the spacecraft.
The spacecraft will carry enough nitrogen to make three sample attempts. Scientists hope to collect between 2.1 ounces and 4.4 pounds of soil and rock samples.
Osiris-REx is expected to leave the asteroid in March 2021 by firing its main engines to reach a speed of 716 mph. It is expected to return to Earth orbit in September 2023. The spacecraft would then jettison the capsule carrying the asteroid sample.
Osiris-REx would remain in the Earth orbit, while the capsule makes its way down to the Utah desert on Sept. 24, 2023. The sample would be taken to the Johnson Space Center for analysis.
Bennu, according to NASA, was likely formed by the rubble of an exploding star smashing into material in a nebula. Over the millions of years that it has traveled through space, the asteroid has been whittled down by the gravity of planets it’s passed.
Because of its age, the asteroid is expected to contain materials that were present when the solar system was first formed and that may have had a role in the origin of life itself.
By studying that material, scientists hope to get more information about the origin of the solar system and about life as we know it.