NASA has raised the curtain on a landmark mission to bring samples back from a near-earth asteroid scheduled for launch on September 8th.
At a pre-launch news conference NASA scientists hailed the mission as a “great adventure” with the potential to vastly expand the understanding of the early formation of the solar system and the potential dangers posed to earth by asteroids.
The OSIRIS-REx (The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) spacecraft will reach the Bennu asteroid in 2018 and shoot samples back to earth in September 2023.
“This is a dark asteroid that we have found and that we're going to hunt down, we're going to orbit, we're going to take a good look at it and we're going to bring back a sample,” said NASA planetary science division director, Jim Green.
OSIRIS-REx program executive, Gordon Johnston said the 60 to 200 grams of samples that a robotic arm collect from Bennu will be a goldmine for planetary scientists.
“One of the amazing things about OSIRIS-REx is it actually addresses all of the science goals that the planetary science has at NASA. OSIRIS-REx is going to help us understand how the solar system works and the nature of the bodies in the solar system. It's going to help us understand how the solar system formed. It's going to inform our understanding for the potential for life in the solar system on earth and elsewhere,” he said.
The 2,109 kg ORISRIS-REx spacecraft will be the first to bring back a sample from an asteroid, and will bring back the largest sample since the Apollo era in the 1960s and 70s.
The spacecraft will not land on the asteroid but instead will go into orbit around it and lower a robotic arm that will suck up the sample from the surface.
“And it has a pogo on it and the purpose of the pogo is to keep us in contact with the asteroid for the three to five seconds it takes us to give the asteroid the gentle high five."
"We then release the gas, which is how we actually collect the material from the asteroid,” said OSIRIS-REx Program Manager Rich Kuhns, as a video demonstrating the arm was played for journalists.
The mission will also have a security aspect, and will help scientists predict the trajectory of asteroids that could collide with earth.
“The security aspect addresses the fact that we're going a near-earth asteroid. We're very interested in these objects for the science, but we're also keeping an eye on them for potential impact hazards, and in fact NASA has been very responsive to Congressional directives in this area,” said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Dante Lauretta.
The five year odyssey, said Lauretta, will explore vital new scientific territory.
“So it really is a great adventure. We're going out into the unknown. We're bringing back scientific treasure,” he said.