Launched in September 2016, OSIRIS-REx is the first U.S. mission to obtain a sample from an asteroid.
The NASA mission, led by the University of Arizona, successfully launched an unmanned spacecraft on a seven-year voyage to Bennu and back, answering questions about our origin and our destiny along the way.
Bennu, the asteroid target for this mission, orbits the Sun at about 63,000 miles per hour. As a carbon-rich asteroid that records the earliest history of our Solar System, Bennu might contain the molecular precursors to the origins of life.
Additionally, Bennu is one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids, with a relatively high probability of impacting Earth late in the 22nd century. Bennu is in an unstable orbit, which means it probably won’t last more than 10 million years before it collides with Earth or another planet, or falls into the sun. In order to come up with a way to mitigate the risk of a collision with Earth, scientists need to know more about its physical and chemical properties.
After launch, the spacecraft will take a two-year cruise towards the Sun, enter orbit, and begin its chase for Bennu in August 2018. By 2020, the spacecraft for OSIRIS-REx—the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer—will pick up a pristine sample of Bennu’s regolith, the loose soil and rocky material found on its surface. To do this, the spacecraft will hover over a carefully chosen area on the asteroid’s surface and then will be sent down at 10 centimeters per second to make five seconds of contact with Bennu’s surface to vacuum up the rock-strewn dust.
OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth in September 2023, at which point scientists can begin analyzing the sample retrieved.
The first-of-its-kind mission is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, and represents years of interdisciplinary research and collaboration. The University of Arizona was selected in 2011 to lead the mission because of its long-standing history of innovation and expertise in sending unmanned spacecraft to places none have gone before.