The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has arrived at Kennedy Space Center in preparation for its mission to explore and sample an asteroid for the first time in human history. Launch of the vehicle is currently scheduled for September 2016. The vehicle will then reach the asteroid in 2018, and the sample will arrive on Earth in the year 2023.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security - Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) is designed to travel to the asteroid Bennu. There, it will gather a sample of material from the surface of the body, and return the specimen to Earth. The specimen coming back to Earth will contain around 2.1 ounces of material from the rocky body.
"OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Sept. 8. The two-hour launch window opens at 7:05 p.m. EDT," NASA officials wrote, announcing the arrival of the observatory at the space center located on the east coast of Florida.
Astronomers hope the mission will answer mysteries surrounding the birth of the solar system. Analysis of the sample might also reveal how water and organic materials may have arrived at Earth in our planet's distant past.
Some observers liken the spacecraft to a bulldozer, gathering gravel from the frigid surface of the rocky body.
This mission could have far-reaching ramifications for the future of private space travel. Asteroids are rich in minerals and other materials that could be valuable to astronauts in the future, as well as people on Earth today. There exists the possibility that OSIRIS-REx could reveal the asteroids are ripe for mining of valuable raw materials. Like the discovery of gold in California in 1848 triggered the gold rush, the right finding could set off a boon in commercial space exploration.
Lockheed Martin Systems of Colorado designed and built the vehicle, which takes advantage of technology tested on an earlier mission.
"Stardust collected particles from comet Wild-2 in January 2004, and the material was returned to Earth in a muffin-shaped container at Utah Test and Training Range two years later. The sample return capsule that OSIRIS-REx will use is nearly identical. It too will make its way back through Earth's atmosphere to land in the high Utah desert," The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics reported.
For now, the spacecraft sits in the Sunshine State, awaiting a long journey to a distant, lonely asteroid.