NASA’s seven-year OSIRIS-REx mission launched successfully from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 7:05 p.m. Thursday evening. Its destination is a 500 meter-wide near-Earth asteroid named Bennu.
This is the first time in NASA’s history where scientists will land a spacecraft on an asteroid, grab a sample of mineral and bring them back to Earth. Scientists at NASA refer to Bennu as sort of a “time capsule” because it dates back some 4.5 billion years ago, which is in the earliest days of our solar system.
In an interview from Huffington Post, NASA astronomer Lucy McFadden explained that the components of the pre-planet forming era of the solar system are preserved on Bennu. Scientists hope to capture these materials from the asteroid and use them to gain insights on how the planets in our solar system formed, and how the materials for life ended up on Earth.
The spacecraft has begun its two-year journey to arrive at Bennu in August 2018. Once there, the probe will orbit the asteroid for a number of months taking pictures and mapping out the landscape.
Then, in July 2020, OSIRIS-REx will reach out its robot arm and make five a second contact with Bennu's surface. According to CNN, “During those few seconds, the arm will use a blast of nitrogen gas to kick up rocks and dust and then try to snag a sample of the dust and store it.”
"We are basically a space vacuum cleaner," said the mission’s principal investigator, Dante Lauretta, at a NASA briefing Wednesday.
NASA hopes to fill the probe’s capsule with at least 2 ounces of asteroid dust and small rocks from Bennu. The spacecraft is due to arrive back on Earth in September of 2023 after its seven-year journey. As the OSIRIS-REx flies over the Utah Test and Training Range in Tooele County, it will parachute the capsule holding the asteroid sample to the ground.