While NASA’s most recent project funding has gained much attention with its aggressive goal to capture an asteroid, a lesser known but more preeminent mission involves sampling an asteroid. This mission is referred to as the Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) and is set to launch in 2016.
OSIRIS-REx just passed a confirmation review and is now moving into the testing and development phase. Once launched, it will head toward asteroid Bennu, collect samples and then return to Earth in 2023. OSIRIS-REx will collect at least 2 ounces of asteroid material, along with measuring non-gravitational forces and observations to be compared with measurements made from earth-based telescopes.
Asteroid Bennu started off its existence known as 1999 RQ36. If this were a Star Wars movie, 1999 RQ36 would be a pretty cool name for a droid. However, this is not a Star Wars movie, so NASA put on a global competition for kids younger than 18 to liven up the name of the humdrum asteroid. The winner, Michael Puzio, suggested Bennu, the Egyptian god of the Sun that was depicted as a heron. He imagined the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) would look like the wing of Bennu reaching out to the asteroid. TAGSAM will be collecting the samples, it is simple in design, including an articulating arm and sampler head.
Click on the video above to see an animation of the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM). (Credit: NASA)
Before collecting samples of Bennu, the spacecraft will study and map the asteroid for up to 505 days. All of the information collected by OSIRIS-REx will greatly increase scientists’ understanding of near-Earth objects. Bennu’s orbit has been well mapped – it takes one complete trip around the Sun every 436 days, and every six years it comes close to Earth. Researchers desire to better understand the physics of asteroid orbit and to refine their impact calculations, for obvious reasons. Bennu is a great target then as scientists believe there is a chance it will impact Earth in 2182.
Outside of the fear of eminent asteroid impact, there is also great interest in what the OSIRIS-REx samples will tell us about the universe it has been hurtling through for a very, very long time. OSIRIS-REx is just part of NASA’s larger mission to someday lasso an asteroid and rodeo that baby near Earth for observation and prodding. This is a small step in that direction, but important nonetheless.