The $800m mission will travel for two years on a journey to Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid about the size of a small mountain. Astronomers believe that the asteroid has been around for over 4.5 billion years, from the earliest days of our solar system. If so, Bennu is a time capsule that could help explain how life sprouted on Earth and, possibly, elsewhere in the neighborhood. Returned to Earth, the pristine sample could offer a trove of insight for generations of scientists to come, just as the moon rocks brought back by the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s are still being studied today.
This mission will also act as a stepping stone toward NASA's asteroid redirect mission, where the agency plans to rope an asteroid, tow it near Earth, and send astronauts to explore it.
"So, we'll have over 20 years of very precise tracking data on this asteroid", says Dante Lauretta, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx. It will use several cameras to examine the surface, a laser altimeter to map the its three-dimensional topography, visible- and infrared-light spectrometers to study its chemical and mineral composition and an X-ray spectrometer to study elemental abundances.
"We are a trailblazer for that kind of activity because our science requires it".
"These are really critical because our Earth went through a major period of geological upheaval during the late heavy bombardment when millions of asteroids collided with the surface, sterilising our planet".
The TAGSAM is a type of reverse-vacuum device originally conceived by a Lockheed Martin engineer in his garage. While this is closer than most asteroids, but the spacecraft likely won't reach Bennu until 2018.
"Well OSIRIS-REx, which is on top of that Atlas Rocket, will be launched when the window opens at 7:05 tonight".
We have learned a huge amount about asteroids and comets from the Dawn and Rosetta missions -- but both these missions have left many unanswered questions.
Asteroid Bennu, a black roundish rock taller than the Empire State Building, is the intended target of a NASA spacecraft set to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday night.
Michael Daly, a York University professor and OLA's lead scientist, told reporters last month that the mission will help scientists better understand how the solar system formed.
Asteroid 2016 RB1 came within 23,900 miles of Earth Wednesday morning, which is shockingly close to the orbit of some communications satellites.
Globally, asteroid detection programs have found more than 13,500 near-Earth objects of all sizes - 1,218 near-Earth objects have already been found this year, according to the Minor Planets Center.
It was the Japanese space agency JAXA that first proved sample collection from an asteroid was possible. In a delicate maneuver, OSIRIS-REx will extend an arm to touch the asteroid's surface, collecting at least 60 g of material in a few seconds of contact.