NASA launches seven-year mission to retrieve asteroid sample

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was successfully launched on Sept. 8 on its mission to the Bennu Asteroid - image courtesy of Lockheed Martin and NASA
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was successfully launched on Sept. 8 on its mission to the Bennu Asteroid - image courtesy of Lockheed Martin and NASA.

NASA’s first asteroid sampling mission launched into space last week, beginning a journey which could revolutionise our understanding of the early solar system.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, launched from Cape Canaveral on September 8 aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is designed to rendezvous with, study, and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth.

Bennu and other asteroids of its kind are remnants from the formation of our solar system more than 4.5bn years ago.

If the OSIRIS-REx is successful in its mission, it will be the first time NASA has brought back pieces of an asteroid and it will allow researchers to closely study the chemical makeup of Bennu in laboratories back on Earth.

OSIRIS-REx to reach asteroid in August 2018

The OSIRIS-REx will spend the next year travelling around the Sun before passing back past earth in September 2017.

The NASA spacecraft will then use Earth’s gravity to change the plane of its orbit to put it in the same plane as Bennu and will spend another year in space before reaching the asteroid in August 2018.

Key Mission Dates:
Launch: Sept 8, 2016
Earth Flyby: September 2017
Asteroid Operations: August 2018
Touch-And-Go Sample Collection: July 2020
Asteroid Departure Maneuver: March 2021
Sample Return to Earth: Sept 24, 2023

OSIRIS-REx will then scout the best place to grab a sample off Bennu’s surface as part of its mapping campaign.

In July 2020 it will attempt to grab up to 60 grams of asteroid material from Bennu’s surface using its TAGSAM – a small robotic arm with a sampling device attached at the end.

With sample in tow, OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to begin heading back to Earth in March 2021 and is expected to arrive back in September 2023.

Only a portion of the NASA spacecraft will make it back to solid ground, when a container carrying the asteroid sample will separate from the rest of the spacecraft and land on Earth with the help of a parachute.

If the mission is successful and an asteroid sample survives the journey, it will be the largest amount of material to come back from space since the Apollo era, and will subsequently be analysed by NASA researchers who will spend two years cataloguing and analysing the asteroids particles in an attempt to better understand what constitutes the chemical components of Bennu.

Asteroid could reveal information about the formation of the solar system

This study could tell us a lot about the chemicals that made up the early formation of the Solar System and whether the fundamental aspects which helped to create life on Earth came from asteroids.

NASA administrator Charles Bronson said the recent launch of OSIRIS-REx and its subsequent mission could help to provide vital information about the origins of our solar system.

“Today, we celebrate a huge milestone for this remarkable mission, and for this mission team,” he said.

“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.”

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, and follows on the heels of last year’s successful attempt by the European Space Agency in having its Rosetta spacecraft become the first satellite to touch down on an asteroid.