NASA’s first asteroid sampling mission launched into space at 7:05 p.m. EDT Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, beginning a journey that could revolutionize our understanding of the early solar system.
The 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. Asteroids like Bennu are remnants from the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists suspect that asteroids may have been a source of the water and organic molecules for the early Earth and other planetary bodies. An uncontaminated asteroid sample from a known source would enable precise analyses, providing results far beyond what can be achieved by spacecraft-based instruments or by studying meteorites.
Liftoff of OSIRIS-REx from Pad 41 – photo credit NASA
OSIRIS-REx separated from its United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 8:04 p.m. The solar arrays deployed and are now powering the spacecraft.
“With today’s successful launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft embarks on a journey of exploration to Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “I couldn’t be more proud of the team that made this mission a reality, and I can’t wait to see what we will discover at Bennu.”
In 2018, OSIRIS-REx will approach Bennu – which is the size of a small mountain – and begin an intricate dance with the asteroid, mapping and studying Bennu in preparation for sample collection. In July 2020, the spacecraft will perform a daring maneuver in which its 11-foot arm will reach out and perform a five-second “high-five” to stir up surface material, collecting at least 2 ounces (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.
The OSIRIS-REx mission will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era.