Today, weather permitting, NASA will launch a spacecraft dubbed OSIRIS-REx, the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer. This billion-dollars craft is headed out to the cosmos to grab a scoop of grit off an asteroid, hauling it back home so researchers can search it for amino acids and organic molecules. The craft is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral this evening sometime after the launch window opens at 7:05 PM ET; catch all the action through NASA's livestream.
OSIRIS will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and will scoop up 60 grams of pristine carbon-rich space dust from the asteroid's surface. “We expect these samples will contain organic molecules from the early solar system that may give us information and clues to the origin of life,” principal investigator Dante Lauretta says in a NASA press release
It will take the craft two years to reach the space rock and OSIRIS is expected to return home by 2023.
It’s not the first time scientists have taken a sample from an asteroid. According to Paul Voosen at Science, the Japanese craft Hayabusa 1 grabbed a sample from the asteroid 25143 Itokawa, returning about 1,500 grains of grit to earth in 2010. It was supposed to bring back much more, but a string of problems cut the mission short.
OSIRIS, on the other hand, is expected to grab between 60 and 300 grams of material. Not a lot, but enough to detect any possible amino acids and other building blocks of life. “[It] won’t be much, but NASA scientists have become masters at working with practically nothing,” Hap McSween, a planetary scientist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who will curate the Bennu samples tells Voosen.
OSIRIS will go into orbit around Bennu, scanning and mapping the 1,600-foot diameter asteroid and will identify about a dozen potential sampling sites, reports NASA. But the craft will not land to collect its sample; instead, it will use its Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism to briefly “pogo” off Bennu's surface, grabbing a sample container full of loose rocks and dust. Upon its approach of Earth, OSIRIS will eject the sample capsule, which should touch down in Utah, before the craft goes into orbit around the sun.
The great hope is that the sample makes it to Earth intact; Voosen reports that a broken o-ring caused contamination to the Hyabusa sample and the 1999 Stardust mission, which collected dust from a comet’s tail, was contaminated by its own rocket booster.
Though researchers will test the grit for amino acids, they are not the only thing researchers are interested in. Ian Sample at The Guardian reports that Bennu is one of the “potentially hazardous asteroids” that have a chance of impacting Earth. It swings by Earth every six years, and is expected to get within 186,000 miles in 2135.
Studying Bennu will help researchers understand how sunlight affects the orbits of potentially dangerous asteroids. As the space rock heats up and cools down, the emission of thermal photons can affect the asteroid's orbit, a situation called the Yarkovsky Effect. “We’d like to understand that and measure it much more precisely when we’re at Bennu and in doing so improve our predictive accuracy for other asteroids that may represent a future threat to Earth,” Ed Behore, deputy principal investigator tells Sample.
Don't miss tonight's action. NASA will start pre-launch coverage today at 4:30 PM ET.