NASA to Launch Asteroid-Sampling Mission in 3 Weeks

From Scientific American:

The agency’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is scheduled to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Sept. 8 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. If all goes according to plan, the probe will return a pristine sample of the potentially hazardous space rock Bennu to Earth in September 2023.

“We seek samples that date back to the very dawn of our solar system,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, a professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said during a news conference today (Aug. 17). [OSIRIS-REx: NASA’s Asteroid Sample-Return Mission in Pictures]

“We want to get those back into our laboratories to understand the processes that may have led to the origin of life, and to the habitability of our planet,” Lauretta added.

OSIRIS-REx will take a circuitous path toward Bennu, finally meeting up with the 1,600-foot-wide (500 meters) space rock in August 2018.

The spacecraft will study Bennu from orbit for about two years. Then, in July 2020 or so, it will head down and grab at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of asteroid material.

“We don’t technically land on Bennu, but we make contact with it for about 5 seconds,” Jeff Grossman, OSIRIS-REx program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said during today’s news conference.

During these 5 seconds, the probe will blast the asteroid’s surface with gas and collect the material that’s blown out, Grossman explained.

Current plans call for OSIRIS-REx to leave Bennu for Earth in March 2021. In September 2023, the spacecraft will eject the sample capsule, which will land with the aid of parachutes in the Utah desert. (OSIRIS-REx, meanwhile, will be put in a stable “parking orbit” around the sun.)

The asteroid material will be studied for years to come by scientists around the world, much as the moon rocks …

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