WASHINGTON: NASA is set to launch its first mission to return pristine samples of an asteroid to Earth, which will help study how planets formed and how life began.
The findings may also improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth, researchers said.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and bring a sample back to Earth for intensive study.
Launch is scheduled for September 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The 2,110-kilogramme fully-fuelled spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket during a 34-day launch period that begins September 8, and reach Bennu in 2018.
After a careful survey of Bennu to characterise the asteroid and locate the most promising sample sites, OSIRIS-REx will collect between 60 to 2,000 grammes of surface material with its robotic arm and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023.
“The launch of OSIRIS-REx is the beginning a seven-year journey to return pristine samples from asteroid Bennu,” said OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
“The team has built an amazing spacecraft, and we are well-equipped to investigate Bennu and return with our scientific treasure,” Lauretta said.
OSIRIS-REx has five instruments to explore Bennu. These include the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) – a system consisting of three cameras that will observe Bennu and provide global imaging, sample site imaging, and will witness the sampling event.
OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) – scanning LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) will be used to measure the distance between the spacecraft and Bennu’s surface, and will map the shape of the asteroid.
OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) will investigate mineral abundances and provide temperature information with observations in the thermal infrared spectrum.
OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) is designed to measure visible and infrared light from Bennu to identify mineral and organic material.
Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) will observe the X-ray spectrum to identify chemical elements on Bennu’s surface and their abundances.
The spacecraft has two systems that will enable the sample collection and return. The Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – an articulated robotic arm with a sampler head will collect a sample of Bennu’s surface.
The spacecraft will return the asteroid sample to Earth in the OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Capsule (SRC) which is equipped with a heat shield and parachutes.