On The Launch Pad: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Mission To Visit Bennu Asteroid With Atlas V Rocket

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is waiting to lift off from its Cape Canaveral launch pad aboard an Atlas V rocket on a quest to visit the earthbound asteroid Bennu before it comes near the planet.

If the weather continues to be good, the spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral Thursday evening at approximately 7:05 p.m. EDT, NASA launch manager Tim Dunn told Space.com.

“We are prepared to launch this fantastic asteroid-retrieval mission.”

Watch the pre-launch briefings and Atlas V rocket lift off live at this link.

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will travel 4.5 billion miles out from Earth over the next two years to reach the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.

NASA's OSRIS-REx mission will lift off aboard an Atlas V rocket. (Photo by Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty Images)
Atlas V rocket. [Photo by Aubrey Gemignani/NASA/Getty Images]

It will arrive in August 2018 and spend the next several months in orbit around the asteroid as it maps the surface and measures gravity. In July 2020, it will land on the surface to collect a sample of rock and dust from the asteroid.

In March 2021, the spacecraft will leave the asteroid and head back home to Earth where scientists will retrieve the sample canister and examine its contents. They hope to learn more about the origins of the solar system by examining its contents.

The asteroid Bennu was first discovered in 1999 by NASA’s LINEAR asteroid survey, and the space rock is about 1,600 feet diameter with a mass of 60 tons.

It’s considered a near-Earth asteroid, and while Bennu won’t hit the planet this time around, there is some concern it could pose a serious threat next time it comes calling in the late 22nd century.

Identifying the asteroid’s core components, which haven’t changed in 4.5 billion years, could help answer the question of where we come from, Principal Investigator Prof. Dante Lauretta from the University of Arizona told Sci-News.

“Think of it as a small mountain in space. It is a near-Earth asteroid that makes occasional close approaches to our planet.”

This isn’t the first time the spacefaring nations of the world have tried to examine a space rock. Apollo astronauts brought back lunar soil; the GENISIS mission retrieved samples from the sun’s outer area, and the NEAR-shoemaker landed on asteroid Eros in 2000.

Other attempts include the Stardust mission to comet Wild 2, the Hayabusa mission to asteroid Itokawa, and the latest ESA Rosetta mission, which was in the news lately after its missing comet lander, Philae, was found.

Scientists hope this mission will be different, however. NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission is the first spacecraft to be outfitted with a robotic arm and vacuum cleaner for collecting samples.

Additionally, the space rock known as Bennu is thought to be a “rubble pile” asteroid instead of a solid piece of rock, meaning it will be easier for the space probe to take samples. It also means it will be more difficult to complete a successful landing because of the law of gravity, Alessondra Springmann of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson told New Scientist.

“OSIRIS-REx will return the most extraterrestrial material to Earth since the Apollo missions to the moon.

“This is a unique opportunity to visit a pristine source of material mostly unchanged from near the beginning of our solar system. There’s a lot of things we expect to be surprised about.”

NASA's OSRIS-REx mission will examine the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)
[Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA/Getty Images]

NASA hopes to retrieve at least two ounces of space dust and asteroid rocks from Bennu’s surface. This material is thought to be ancient and should contain the beginnings of organic life.

There’s also the possibility the asteroid could strike the Earth in the late 22nd century, which is one reason the space rock was chosen for the OSRIS-Rex mission. When Bennu passes the Earth in 2135, it will slip between the planet and the moon. If it hits a specific keyhole, its orbit could be altered just enough to threaten our world the next time it comes calling.

With enough warning, NASA and the other spacefaring nations of the world could potentially nudge the asteroid off its collision course with Earth, Lindley Johnson of NASA’s new Planetary Defense Coordination Office told KTLA.

“We would need probably at least five years warning to 10 years warning to be able to launch an effective space mission to deflect that object.”

[Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA/AP Images]

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