May 26, 2011

NASA Planning Asteroid Mission For 2016

NASA announced on Wednesday that it would launch a spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016 and use a robotic arm to obtain samples to bring back to Earth.

The mission, known as Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth.

"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," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement.  "It's robotic missions like these that will pave the way for future human space missions to an asteroid and other deep space destinations."

NASA considered three concept study reports for new scientific missions before selecting OSIRIS-REx.  

The other missions considered by NASA included a sample return mission from the far side of the Moon and a mission to the surface of Venus.

Asteroids are leftovers formed from the cloud of gas and dust that collapsed to form our sun and the planets about 4.5 billion years ago.

The OSIRIS-REx will travel for four years until approaching its 1999 RQ36 destination in 2020, according to NASA.

Once the spacecraft is within three miles of the asteroid it will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping.

The science team will then pick a location from where the spacecraft's arm will take a sample.

OSIRIS-REx will then move closer to the site, and the arm will extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023.

NASA said the mission is expected to cost approximately $800 million.

The sample of asteroid collected by the spacecraft will be stored in a capsule and brought back to Earth in 2023.

The asteroid, RQ36, is about 1,900 feet in diameter, or roughly the size of five football fields. 

NASA said RQ36 is likely rich in carbon, which is a key element in the organic molecules necessary for life.

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

According to the space agency, the mission will also measure the "Yarkovsky effect" for the first time.  The effect is a small push caused by the sun on an asteroid as it absorbs sunlight and re-emits the energy as heat.  This adds up overtime and could affect the path of the asteroid.

NASA said having a better understanding of this effect could help scientists more accurately predict an Earth-approaching asteroid's path.


Image Caption: Conceptual image of OSIRIS-REx. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona


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