Space agency hopes to use these ‘bitten by bullets, hurled by missiles’ to uncover the secrets of our solar system
The US space agency is aiming to do what it cannot reach with its spacecraft alone – hitting an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
To do so, it launched a mission on Wednesday called OSIRIS-REx, short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer.
It will spend a decade hurtling through space on a mission to destroy the asteroid Bennu, which stands as a warning that space is a dangerous place.
It is scheduled to enter Bennu’s orbit in 2018, and send the sample back to Earth in 2023. As a “sample return” mission, the sample will be valuable for scientists.
“Scientists have spent a long time studying asteroids and we need to take advantage of this mission to get samples,” said the mission’s principal investigator, Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.
“Every piece of material we bring back will tell us something new. It will have a unique background about how our solar system formed.”
OSIRIS-REx will arrive at Bennu on 1 September 2018, meeting the “spring equinox”, or the transition between daylight and night.
The first probes to put a pathfinder on the celestial body, Galileo, were launched in 1989, circling Jupiter, before flying over Venus, and returning with information about the planet’s atmosphere and climate.
Other craft, including the craft that touched down on the moon in 1972, have returned less useful information, with samples simply distributed to scientists.
“This instrument represents a critical first step to conducting the first investigation into the precise distribution of organics and other materials in the asteroid core,” said Bruce Jakosky, of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“Bennu is an intriguing target and is so big that a normal solar-powered spacecraft cannot reach it, so we have taken a different route,” Jakosky said.
“We have sent a small, slow nuclear-powered spacecraft to the edge of the solar system. We’ll see if this method can give us good results, and if Bennu is rich in organic material.”
OSIRIS-REx will collect about 1.6kg (3lb) of rocks and dust, from the surface, but much larger amounts could be obtained.
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The mission team said the samples would be valuable for chemistry and mineral analysis, and may help researchers understand more about asteroid formation, which was thought to have begun billions of years ago.
They may also reveal a history of comets, which form from the ancient tail of the sun, which can bring back telltale signs of their composition.
If all goes to plan, scientists will send OSIRIS-REx a month after it arrives at Bennu, where the spacecraft will hole into its surface, sending out a heating device and, at high speed, putting its spacecraft within a centimetre (0.07in) of the surface.
The impact will accelerate the dust and rock, separating them and, within weeks, the team expects they will have an on-board sample of a “mini-asteroid” – a small rock of rocky origin, not unlike our own moon.