The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 8. The unmanned probe is on a seven-year mission to retrieve a sample from the surface of an asteroid called Bennu and bring it back to Earth.
The probe is expected to reach Bennu in about two years. It will study and map the asteroid’s surface before getting close enough to take a sample.
In July 2020, the probe will use its 3.3-metre-long arm to “high-five” the asteroid. This will stir up the small rocks and dust – called regolith – on Bennu’s surface. The arm will then collect about 60 grams of the surface material to bring back to Earth.
Asteroids are fragments left over from the formation of our solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists believe that Bennu has not changed much since it was first formed, so looking at a sample from its surface could help them better understand the origins of the solar system.
Scientists also think that asteroids may have been a source of water and other substances necessary for life for Earth and other planets. Studying Bennu’s regolith may provide clues to the origin of life on Earth.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is NASA’s first attempt to bring samples back from an asteroid. (The Rosetta space probe that landed on a comet’s surface in 2014 (see TKN article) is sending information back, but will not return to Earth.)
Several organizations are working with NASA on this mission, including the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The CSA is responsible for an instrument called a laser altimeter, which uses laser pulses to measure distance. The Canadian team will use the altimeter to keep track of the distance between the spacecraft and the asteroid’s surface. The altimeter will also help the scientists map Bennu’s surface features.
Canada will receive a portion of the regolith sample that is brought back to Earth, which Canadian scientists will use for many different research projects.
OSIRIS-REx Launch Highlights (YouTube video)
Template for paper model of OSIRIS-REx (Awesome PDF!)