NASA is going after an asteroid, baby

NASA is going after an asteroid, baby

Eat your heart out, European Space Agency -- NASA's going to an asteroid, too.

The European Space Agency made headlines two years ago when it successfully landed a probe on an asteroid for the first time ever, and now NASA is looking to duplicate the trick. The agency is leading an international collaboration that will launch a seven-year sample return mission to an asteroid named Bennu.

Blast off is scheduled for Sept. 8 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and there is a 34-day launch window in case weather or something else interferes with the launch. The mission, called OSIRIS-REx, will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, according to a NASA statement.

The aim of the mission is to grab at least 2 ounces and up to 70 ounces of surface material with its robotic arm, and then head back to Earth with a detachable capsule by 2023.

It’ll be a delicate mission, and one that will require incredible precision just like the Rosetta mission by the ESA, although this mission will be a little different in that the probe won’t be sitting on the asteroid’s surface for an extended period of time. The probe will rely on the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter to measure the distance to Bennu’s surface and avoid either crashing into it or missing it altogether.

“The spacecraft will begin a detailed survey of Bennu two months after slowing to encounter Bennu,” NASA said in the statement. “The process will last over a year, and, as part of it, OSIRIS-REx will map potential sample sites. After the selection of the final site, the spacecraft will briefly touch the surface of Bennu to retrieve a sample. The sampling arm will make contact with the surface of Bennu for about five seconds, during which it will release a burst of nitrogen gas. The procedure will cause rocks and surface soil to be stirred up and captured in the sampler head. The spacecraft has enough nitrogen to allow three sampling attempts, to collect between 60 and 2000 grams 2–70 ounces (60–2000) grams.”

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