Washington: The US space agency NASA is gearing up to launch its first mission to return a sample of an asteroid to Earth next month.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will be launched on September 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu - that could one day destroy our planet - and bring a sample back to Earth for intensive study.
The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth, NASA said in a statement on Wednesday.
"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.
The 2,110-kg fully-fuelled spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket during a 34-day launch period that begins on September 8, and reach its asteroid target in 2018.
OSIRIS-REx has five instruments to explore Bennu:
- OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) – A system consisting of three cameras provided by the University of Arizona, Tucson, will observe Bennu and provide global imaging, sample site imaging, and will witness the sampling event.
- OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) – A scanning LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) contributed by the Canadian Space Agency 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) – An instrument provided by Arizona State University in Tempe that will investigate mineral abundances and provide temperature information with observations in the thermal infrared spectrum.
- OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) – An instrument provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and designed to measure visible and infrared light from Bennu to identify mineral and organic material.
- Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) – A student experiment provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in Cambridge, which will observe the X-ray spectrum to identify chemical elements on Bennu’s surface and their abundances.
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 grams of surface material with its robotic arm and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023, the US space agency said.