NASA spacecraft to collect samples from asteroid

In 2016, NASA plans to launch a spacecraft to an asteroid, pluck samples from it using a robotic arm and then return the samples to Earth.

The spacecraft payload, called Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, will approach the primitive, near-Earth asteroid — designated 1999 RQ36 — in 2020. Once within three miles of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping.

A location will then be chosen from where the spacecraft’s robotic arm will take the sample. The spacecraft will gradually move closer to the site and the arm will extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023.

The mission will also help scientists predict the path of an asteroid accurately by measuring the ‘Yarkovsky effect’ for the first time. The effect is a small push caused by the sun on an asteroid as it absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat. The small push adds up over time, but it is uneven due to an asteroid’s shape, wobble, surface composition and rotation.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft, and the OSIRIS-REx payload will include instruments from the University of Arizona, Goddard Space Flight Center, Arizona State University and the Canadian Space Agency.

The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800m (£487m).