NASA’s First Mission to Sample an Asteroid Blasts Off Thursday Night

OSIRIS-REx, the first American asteroid sample return mission, is a big step forward for asteroid mining.
September 8, 2016, 8:13pmUpdated on September 8, 2016, 11:39pm
Concept art of OSIRIS-REx at asteroid Bennu. Image: NASA/GSFC

UPDATE: OSIRIS-REx launched successfully at 7:05 PM EST. For updates on the mission, check in here.

Right now, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is sitting pretty atop a powerful Atlas V rocket on its Cape Canaveral launchpad. But in just a few hours, if all goes to plan, OSIRIS-REx will officially be on its way to the asteroid Bennu, where it aims to become the first American spacecraft to intercept an asteroid, collect a sample, and return it back to Earth.

OSIRIS-Rex aims to scoop up about two ounces of regolith (surface rock) for return to Earth during its seven-year-long round trip to Bennu and back. Studying these space pebbles up close is expected to yield insights into the origins of the solar system, including a firmer grasp of how widely distributed organic compounds eventually led to the emergence of life on Earth.

The mission will also provide an operational platform to test out some of the mechanisms required to mine asteroids for in the future, both for scientific samples and commercial resources. Another major goal of OSIRIS-REx is to aid planetary defense by developing better strategies for protecting Earth from collisions with hazardous objects.

Given that NASA has invested nearly one billion dollars and five years of preparation into this intrepid asteroid-grabber, the anticipation for Thursday evening's liftoff is palpable.

Indeed, the tension has been kicked up a few notches because just one week ago, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on a nearby launchpad, which destroyed both the rocket and the $200 million satellite payload SpaceX had been contracted to deliver to orbit days later.

Hopefully, OSIRIS-REx—which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer—will avoid the same fate.

The launch window for the ambitious mission opens at 7:05 PM EST and runs until 9:00 PM on Thursday evening. The event will be livestreamed at on NASA TV and the below YouTube link, with coverage and commentary beginning at 4:30 PM. A live countdown is also up-and-running on the OSIRIS-REx website. (We'll be updating this story after the launch, should it proceed as scheduled.)

Launch livestream begins at 4:30 PM EST.

Assuming the launch is successful, the Atlas V rocket, operated by the United Launch Alliance, will jettison boosters about two minutes after liftoff. Once it reaches its initial parking orbit, the SUV-sized OSIRIS-REx capsule will be unveiled from its protective fairing and exposed to space for the first time. During the first hour of the flight, the Atlas V's upper Centaur rocket stage will ignite for several minutes in two separate burns which will accelerate the spacecraft to a hyperbolic escape velocity of 5.4 kilometers per second (over 12,000 miles per hour).

At about 55 minutes after liftoff, the Centaur booster will separate and OSIRIS-REx will begin its 4.5-billion-mile solo trip to Bennu, an object measuring about 500 meters in diameter. This asteroid is "one of the most potentially hazardous of the known near-Earth objects, although the possibility of impact is still very low—in the late 22nd Century to Earth," according to NASA mission leads.

Overview of OSIRIS-REx mission.

The spacecraft is projected to begin its final approach to Bennu in August 2018, and will be orbiting the target by the end of that year. For two years, it will study the asteroid from afar and scout out the best spot to scoop up a sample. In July 2020, it will sweep in close to Bennu's surface, extend its 10-foot-long robotic arm, and shoot a jet of nitrogen gas at the sample site.

The rock and dust kicked up by the jet will then be retrieved into a storage container using a vacuum-like device.

OSIRIS-REx and Bennu are scheduled to part ways around March 2021, when the spacecraft will begin a two-year-long cruise back to Earth. The samples will be dropped off on September 24, 2023. They will be ejected in a special capsule designed to survive atmospheric reentry, while the rest of the spacecraft blasts by and enters heliocentric orbit.

Funnily enough, NASA is not sure what it will do with OSIRIS-REx after the spacecraft delivers its goods. If it has enough gas left in the tank, it may earn an extended mission. Otherwise, it will settle into a permanent orbit around the Sun.

Concept animation of the sample return process. GIF: NASA Goddard/YouTube

"OSIRIS-REx is really a trailblazer," Dante Lauretta, the mission's principal investigator, told Nature. "Any team that's planning on intimately interacting with an asteroid, whether they're mining it or for future exploration, they're going to take advantage of all the pioneering techniques we're developing."

Though OSIRIS-REx will mark the first time NASA has ever attempted a sample return mission to an asteroid, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was the first to pull off this feat. The agency's Hayabusa spacecraft collected a sample from asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005 and successfully returned it in 2010. The second probe in the series, Hayabusa 2, was launched in December 2014, and aims to return samples of 162173 Ryugu to Earth in 2020.

In other words, asteroids are headed for Earth in the near future—but fortunately, only a few ounces at a time. The ability to study these samples up close will help scientists understand the extraterrestrial worlds they hail from, and hopefully help to prevent those worlds from impacting with our own.

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