NASA preparing to launch its first asteroid sample return mission

OSIRIS-REx examines the asteroid Bennu in this artist's rendering. Credit: NASA

OSIRIS-REx examines the asteroid Bennu in this artist’s rendering. Credit: NASA

Sounding more like a dinosaur than a mission to retrieve a sample from an asteroid, OSIRIS-REx nevertheless is nearing its upcoming launch to study the asteroid Bennu and return a sample to Earth.

The 4,650 pound (2,110 kilogram) Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is scheduled to launch on September 8, 2016, aboard a relatively rare configuration of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket Рthe 411 (4-meter payload fairing, single solid rocket booster, single RL10 Centaur stage).

The lone solid rocket booster attached to the side of the rocket gives a decidedly asymmetric look to the vehicle, though the rocket’s main engines can more than compensate for the offset thrust. This mission will mark the fourth launch of the 411 variant, with all three previous launches completing successfully.

OSIRIS-REx must launch within the 34-day launch window beginning September 8 in order to arrive at Bennu in 2018. Once there, the spacecraft will survey its target to determine the best location from which to retrieve a sample and return it to Earth in 2023. Scientists hope to retrieve between 2 and 70 ounces of material.

“Our upcoming launch is the culmination of a tremendous amount of effort from an extremely dedicated team of scientists, engineers, technicians, finance and support personnel,” said OSIRIS-REx Project Manager Mike Donnelly at Goddard, in a release issued by NASA. “I’m incredibly proud of this team and look forward to launching the mission’s journey to Bennu and back.”