NASA to Launch Historic OSIRIS-REx Mission to Acquire Asteroid Sample

PHOTO: NASA has announced a $800 million plan to acquire a sample of an asteroid and return it to earth by 2023. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
NASA has announced a $800 million plan to acquire a sample of an asteroid and return it to earth by 2023.

All systems are on target for NASA's $800 million plan to send a spacecraft to a nearby asteroid and bring back a sample to study the origins of the solar system, NASA officials said today.

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The asteroid, named Bennu, is a dark, primitive body that may allow scientists a glimpse into the formation of life, NASA scientists said, noting that the OSIRIS-REx mission will be the first to attempt to bring back a sample from an asteroid.

A rocket will launch with a Bennu-bound spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 8 just after 7 p.m. Over the next few years, the craft will approach, map and orbit the asteroid before the mission team picks the safest and most scientifically interesting place from which to take a sample. By July 2020, NASA will acquire the big prize, and the team plans to have OSIRIS-REx arrive back on Earth with the sample by September 2023.

Bennu has an elliptical orbit that ranges about 0.9 to 1.3 astronomical units from the sun. (Earth's average distance from the sun is 1 AU.) Bennu was selected because of its accessibility, size and composition. Researchers also hope to learn about the potential for the asteroid to hit Earth by trying to predict its location, NASA scientists said.

About 4 percent of the sample will be curated by Canada, and another portion will be curated by Japan's JAXA space agency, since both countries partnered in the mission. About three-quarters of the sample will be set aside for future study, since future instruments and scientific knowledge may prompt questions that are beyond today's science.

Included in the $800 million cost of the OSIRIS-REx mission are the seven years of operation and two years of sample inspection, NASA officials said.

Asteroids were created along with the rest of our solar system about 4.5 billion years ago, said Jim Green, the director of NASA's planetary science division. Bennu was discovered in 1996 and was named as part of a national contest, NASA said.

Sample return missions have been conducted only a few times: the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s, which brought back 800 pounds of rocks from the moon; the Genesis mission from 2001 to 2004, which collected atoms of solar wind to learn about the composition of the sun; and the 2006 Stardust mission, which collected dust from a comet. The moon rocks from the Apollo missions are still yielding new science, NASA officials noted.