OSIRIS-REx (or Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer), a planned asteroid sample return mission, will soon have a spaceship.
NASA approved the construction of a craft that will be able to travel to an asteroid, collect a sample, and return it to Earth.
Launch is planned to take place in late 2016, aimed at a meeting with the asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2018. The craft will study the minor body for two years, before obtaining a sample with a robotic arm, and flying back to Earth.
Bennu is an asteroid first discovered by astronomers in September 1999. This minor planet is over 1,600 feet wide, and is one of the most dangerous asteroids known to the human race.
The asteroid orbits the Sun in an elliptical orbit, regularly bringing the asteroid across the orbit of the Earth. Between the years 2169 to 2199, there are eight times when the massive object may strike our home world. Currently, it looks like the chances of a strike during that time period is slim, but paths of asteroids are difficult to predict. OSIRIS-REx could help astronomers refine techniques to predict the orbits of asteroids.
Ironically, the minor body was named after an Egyptian deity associated with the Sun, rebirth and creation.
Bennu is a primitive asteroid, little changed in roughly three billion years. The minor body is also rich in carbon, a material essential to the origin of life on Earth.
"This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration. The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids," Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said.
OSIRIS-REx is the third of three missions that make up NASA's New Frontiers program. Juno and New Horizons were the first two explorations that make up the program. The mission was selected by the space agency in May 2011. This is the first time in history that a sample of material will be returned to Earth from a minor planet. Arrival of the asteroid sample, aboard a capsule, to Earth is scheduled for 2023.
NASA gave the go-ahead for construction of the spacecraft after a strenuous Mission Critical Design Review (CDR). Officials from the space agency met in Littleton, Colorado with private engineers and other experts to review the proposed mission.
In addition to the spacecraft, the new directive authorizes the construction of instruments for the vehicle, along with ground support facilities.
NASA is inviting the public to send their names to be carried aboard the spacecraft as it journeys to the asteroid and back. Submissions are accepted until 30 September 2014.