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NASA's Asteroid Sampling Mission Is Still a Go to Launch

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NASA is set to launch its first asteroid-sampling mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base this Thursday despite the explosion of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket on a nearby launchpad last week.
After all, NASA scientists have an asteroid to rendezvous with. 

On Thursday evening, NASA is sending the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security — Regolith Explorer, a.k.a. OSIRIS-REx, off on the back of the Atlas V rocket to begin its journey to the surface of Bennu, a 1,650-foot-wide asteroid.

If everything goes according to plan, the spacecraft will meet up with Bennu in July 2018, hang around the asteroid for two years and then knock off a large chunk of its material before heading back to Earth. OSIRIS-REx is expected to be back on our planet by September 2023, toting one of the largest asteroid samples ever collected. 

Originally known as 1999 RQ36, the floating rock was renamed after the Egyptian god believed to be linked to the sun, rebirth and creation. The name fits. Bennu orbits the sun on a path that is very like Earth's, and is classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid.” It gets a little too close for comfort to the planet every six years or so, and scientists predict the asteroid will swing perilously close to earth in 2135.

But that's not the only reason NASA is interested in Bennu. NASA scientists believe the asteroid was created at the dawn of the solar system, and thus the carbon-rich rock may contain original materials that gradually clumped together and became the building blocks of our solar system. 

The $800 million project is all about collecting a portion of the rock. "Bennu has what we believe to be some of the most primitive, organic-rich material that exists in our solar system," Daniel Scheeres, leader of the mission's radio-science team, says.

After two years of mapping and studying the asteroid, OSIRIS-REx will actually retrieve the sample — without ever landing on the asteroid — in 2020. The spacecraft will use a robotic arm, the Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, a.k.a. TAGSAM, to grab anywhere from two ounces to four and a half pounds of the asteroid. The end of the robotic arm will fire nitrogen gas at the surface of the rock and then suck up whatever gets cut lose. Once the orbit lines up right, the spacecraft will take off for home in 2021, bringing back an impressive get. 

“Sample return is the future of space exploration,” explains Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator. “One tiny grain of comet or asteroid is like a whole universe.” 

That's when the Johnson Space Center will get in on the act. Up until then, other space centers will be running the show. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is on mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Meanwhile, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers, the space exploration missions being conducted by NASA to better understand the solar system. 

But once that sample lands on Earth, the Johnson Space Center takes center stage — and the bulk of the sample. 

The sample will be divided up among the various groups who contributed to the mission. About a quarter will go to the OSIRIS-Rex science team so they can complete the mission objectives, and the remaining 75 percent will go to NASA. About 5 percent will be stored at NASA’s facility in White Sands, New Mexico, in case anything happens to the Johnson Space Center samples. Another 4 percent will be sent to the Canadian Space Agency as payment for a laser altimeter the spacecraft will use to map Bennu’s surface, and the Japanese Space Agency will receive one-half percent.

The rest will be stored at the Johnson Space Center and researchers will have the chance twice a year to submit requests for samples of the sample. So when anybody mentions that whole SpaceX catastrophe — it's likely the explosion will set the private commercial space industry back for months, if not longer — just take comfort in the fact that NASA is about to get some really fancy rocks that could unlock secrets of the solar system.

What's a measly exploded rocket compared to that?  

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