NASA to collect samples from near-Earth asteroid

NASA’s announced that it’s to launch an unmanned ship to an asteroid in 2016, gathering samples that could help to explain how life began.

The mission, called Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer – or, rather more manageably, Osiris-Rex – was picked from a shortlist that also included a trip to the far side of the moon and a mission to Venus.

The capsule’s design will be similar to that used by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, which returned the world’s first comet particles from comet Wild 2 in 2006.

“This is a critical step in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama to extend our reach beyond low-Earth orbit and explore into deep space,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. “It’s robotic missions like these that will pave the way for future human space missions to an asteroid and other deep space destinations.”

After a four-year trip, Osiris-Rex will approach the near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2020. Once there, it will map the surface for six months from a height of three miles.

It will then move closer, allowing a robotic arm to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023 and analysis at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

RQ36, which is around 1,900 feet across, is believed to be rich in carbon. Organic molecules have been found in meteorite and comet samples, and the team hopes they may be present on RQ36.

The mission will also accurately measure the ‘Yarkovsky effect’ for the first time – a small push caused by the sun on an asteroid as it absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat. This could help planners avoid possible Earth impacts from celestial obje in futures.

“This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids.”

The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800 million.