NASA on Thursday evening successfully launched its Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx, for short) into space, kicking off a seven-year mission that the agency hopes will result in the safe return of an asteroid sample in 2023.
The spacecraft, escorted into the heavens on the back of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, is slated to arrive at its destination – an asteroid named Bennu – in August 2018. Once in close proximity to the asteroid, the explorer will spend roughly two years mapping out the space rock to determine the best area to pull a sample from.
In July 2020, OSIRIS-REx will reach out with an 11-foot robotic arm and attempt to collect a sample from the asteroid by blasting it with nitrogen gas to stir up rocks and dust. NASA hopes to get at least two ounces (60 grams) of material and perhaps as much as 4.4 pounds.
With a successful sample gathered, OSIRIS-REx will begin its journey back to Earth in March 2021. On September 24, 2023, the explorer will drop off a container with the sample over Utah and continue on an orbit around the sun.
While an important mission for NASA, this won’t be the first time that humanity has captured rocks and dust from space. Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft grabbed a small sample from asteroid Itokawa in 2010. NASA has also collected samples from a comet and of course, the moon.
Image courtesy NASA