NASA Spacecraft Set to Explore Giant Asteroid That Could Destroy Earth

The mission could tell us about the very beginnings of our solar system.

ByABC News
July 31, 2016, 8:13 PM

— -- In a little over a month, scientists could be one step closer to understanding fundamental questions about the origins of our planet and the human race — and they will be learning from an asteroid that could destroy us.

The OSIRIS-REx Mission, headed by NASA and the University of Arizona, plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft on Sept. 8 of this year to reach Bennu, a large near-Earth asteroid, in August 2018, according to a website devoted to the mission.

The spacecraft will survey Bennu, and a small vacuumlike device capable of hovering above the asteroid will suck up 60 to 400 grams of "gravel and soil" to bring back to Earth in 2023, according to Dante Lauretta, a professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona's lunar and planetary laboratory and the principal investigator on the OSIRIS-REx mission, who spoke to ABC News by phone from Cape Canaveral, Florida, where he is preparing for the final stages of the mission.

"We believe Bennu is a time capsule from the very beginnings of our solar system," Lauretta said. "So the sample can potentially hold answers to the most fundamental questions human beings ask, like 'Where do we come from?'"

The sample could not only help us understand how life on Earth began but also bring us closer to determining whether life existed or exists on Mars or Europa, a moon of Jupiter's that scientists believe may host life because of the likelihood of lakes of liquid water beneath its frozen surface.

Lauretta said Bennu once resided in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter. It was likely dislodged by a gravitational pull from Saturn, sending it closer to us.

He said that the asteroid could strike Earth and cause tremendous destruction but that we shouldn't be too frightened by the prospect.

"Don't run out and buy asteroid insurance," he joked.

Bennu has a 1 in 2,700 chance of hitting Earth, and such an event wouldn't take place until 2175 or 2196, he said. In 2135, scientists will get a better idea of whether the asteroid will collide with Earth, he said, if Bennu enters a "keyhole" between Earth and the moon. If Bennu does, he said, its orbit will shift so that it will likely hit Earth on a subsequent approach.

A 1 in 2,700 chance isn't insignificant. Your chance of being killed by firearm discharge is roughly 1 in 7,944, according to the National Safety Council.

Lauretta said that by the time that Bennu could strike, we will likely have the technology to destroy it, although he acknowledged that we don't have that capacity now. He mentioned "nukes" as a potential means to protect Earth from the asteroid, as well as what he described as a "gravity tractor," a spacecraft that would send Bennu off a collision course.

"I wish I could be around in 2135 to see what happens," he said.

Lauretta, who started the OSIRIS-REx Mission in research form in 2004, said he's feeling "anxious and proud" in the days before craft takes off. His team, which had as many as 450 full-time employees, is now scaling down as the launch approaches.

"It's a tense moment for all of us," he said.

In addition to preparing for the mission, Lauretta is trying to get a younger generation interested in his subject. Xtronaut, a board game he created to teach children about space exploration, retails on Amazon for $35.

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