NASA asteroid mission hopes to learn origins of life on Earth

Bennu orbits the sun at about 63,000 miles per hour. The agency looks to harvest a significant quantity of samples from Bennu, which will be brought back to Earth for further studies.

"We're really going to understand the distribution of materials across the surface of that asteroid, which is going to be critical for characterizing regions of interest on the surface and ultimately making that key decision, which is, 'Where on this mountain-sized asteroid in space are we going to go down and get those precious 60 grams or more of material for our science?'" Neither is vacuuming samples off an asteroid. Bennu was found by the LINEAR Project on September 11, 1999. It's a lot of work for what seems like a little material-and yet a much better idea than waiting to see if the whole 1,600-foot-wide asteroid slams into earth at the end of the next century.

-Thursday: Launch of Osiris-Rex spacecraft atop an unmanned Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

"We are particularly excited to learn from these samples how complex organic materials can form completely without the influence of life in space, and how they could have influenced the origin of life on Earth as objects like Bennu rained down on Earth shortly after it formed", Dr. Taylor said.

As per NASA, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft, will lift off atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket Thursday at 7:05 p.m. EDT, from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

OSIRIS-REx is ambitious due to its complexity, mission length, level of surface analysis, and quantity of samples it is created to return. During those few seconds, the arm will use a blast of nitrogen gas to kick up rocks and dust and then try to snag a sample of the dust and store it.

Getting the samples back to Earth also presents a significant challenge. The samples will come back in the same kind of container as the comet dust from NASA's Stardust mission in 2006.

The samples will be brought to Johnson Space Center for storage. A follow-on mission, Hayabusa 2, is underway. That cuts down on the travel time for Osiris-Rex and, via its proximity to the sun, keeps its solar wings energized. But we're talking tiny grains in these cases. Three-fourths of the sample will be archived for later study, allowing scientists to answer questions that haven't been thought of today, using instruments yet to be imagined.

Such information is particularly relevant for potentially hazardous asteroids such as Bennu. About a quarter will go to OSIRIS-Rex science team so they can complete the mission objectives, and the remaining 75 percent will go to NASA. It's almost twice as likely that you will die by falling down a flight of stairs than it is that this asteroid will hit us - and the impact wouldn't destroy the planet anyway.

The American space agency said it remains committed to sending the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft into space on September 8.

According to ancient mythology, Bennu was the manifestation of the god Osiris on Earth, taking the form of a heron-a slender bird.

NASA racked up costs amounting to approximately $800 million.

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