NASA launches mission to collect samples from asteroid

NASA has successfully launched OSIRIS-Rex, a seven-year mission to collect samples from an asteroid.

Built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, OSIRIS-Rex launches successfully on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket
Built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, OSIRIS-Rex launches successfully on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket

If the mission goes to plan, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) will rendezvous with, study, and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth.

Asteroids were formed over 4.5 billion years ago at the formation of our solar system and are composed mainly of minerals and rock.

They are believed to have been a source of the water and organic molecules for the early Earth and other planetary bodies and pristine samples are expected to give scientists a much greater understanding of the early solar system.

In 2018, OSIRIS-REx will approach Bennu and begin the process of mapping and studying Bennu in preparation for sample collection.

In July 2020, the spacecraft will perform a manoeuvre in which it will extend its 11-foot arm to stir up surface material, collecting at least 60 grams of small rocks and dust in a sample return container.

OSIRIS-REx will return the sample to Earth in September 2023, when it will then be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for examination.

“Today, we celebrate a huge milestone for this remarkable mission, and for this mission team,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. “We’re very excited about what this mission can tell us about the origin of our solar system, and we celebrate the bigger picture of science that is helping us make discoveries and accomplish milestones that might have been science fiction yesterday, but are science facts today.”

In November 2014 ESA successfully landed the Philae probe on Comet 67P Churymov-Gerasimenko, an achievement discussed by leading industry figures in our Q&A feature Rosetta and Philae.