On Thursday, September 8, there will be cause for celebration as it’s the 50th anniversary since Star Trek first aired on our screens. But that’s not the only thing that’s boldly going where no one has gone before, because NASA’s gearing up to launch an incredible mission to explore a strange new world.
In two days, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is set to launch on top of an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. If you haven’t heard of the mission, there’s every reason to be excited. The spacecraft is going to rendezvous with an asteroid called 101955 Bennu, collect a large sample, and then bring that material back to Earth to be studied.
A two-hour launch window opens at 7.05pm EDT on Thursday (00.05am BST the next day), and it will all be streamed live on NASA TV for you to watch. We’ve embedded the channel below where you’ll be able to catch all of the action.
“The primary objective of the mission is to bring back 60 grams [0.1 pounds] of pristine carbon-rich material from the surface of Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator on the mission and a professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, in a statement. “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.”
The journey to the asteroid is expected to take about two years, with the spacecraft arriving in August 2018. Once there, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) will use five instruments to map the surface, and select a location from which to take a sample.
Then, in July 2020, the main event begins. The spacecraft will approach the surface and hover just meters away, when it will deploy a robotic arm called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), which will contact the surface of Bennu for five seconds, releasing up to three bursts of nitrogen gas. Loose bits of material will be stirred up into the head of the collector.
Above, the Atlas V spacecraft prepares for the launch. NASA
The head of the arm will then be safely stored in a sample return capsule and brought back to Earth, with the spacecraft beginning the journey home in March 2021. In September 2023, the capsule will separate from the main spacecraft and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, with a parachute bringing it safely to the ground in the Utah desert.
This will be the largest sample returned to Earth since the Apollo missions returned material from the Moon, and it will be the first American mission to retrieve samples from an asteroid. A Japanese spacecraft, Hayabusa, has performed the feat before, but its sample was less than a gram in total. OSIRIS-REx will collect at least 60 grams, and as much as 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds).
Bennu, which is about 490 meters (1,600 feet) across, orbits between 1.356 and 0.897 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun (one AU is the distance from Earth to the Sun) and has a very, very small chance of hitting Earth in the late 22nd century. Studying it could help us narrow down that tiny probability (about 0.037 percent) even further.
This mission will be like no other, and will give us an amazing insight into the early Solar System, which this asteroid is thought to be a remnant of. We’d highly recommend tuning in for the launch.
Do or do not, there is no try. Wait, that’s not right…