An Atlas V 411 carrying NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lifts off from SLC-41. Photo credit: ULA
A practically cloudless sky provided a perfect backdrop for the launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft atop a ULA Atlas V rocket in a rare 411 configuration.
With only a single strap-on solid rocket motor to accompany the Atlas V’s main RD-180 engine, the rocket presented an unusual sight to viewers as the RD-180 had to gimbal enough to mitigate the asymmetric thrust provided by the lone solid motor, giving the rocket the appearance of “sliding” slightly as it ascended. This particular configuration of the Atlas V – the ‘411’, which designates a 4-meter payload fairing, single solid rocket motor, and a single RL10-engined Centaur stage – had only flown three times previously and is one of the rarer configurations of the reliable Atlas V family.
The on-time launch at 7:05 pm EDT on Thursday, September 8, 2016, places NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a trajectory to rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu. This will be NASA’s first spacecraft to visit an asteroid and retrieve a sample for later return to Earth.
“We are honored to be chosen by NASA to launch this historic mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services, in a press release issued by the company after the launch. “Thank you to our NASA customer and mission partners for the outstanding teamwork and attention to detail as we successfully started OSIRIS-Rex on its seven-year journey to Bennu.”
Scientists hope to collect as much as 2 kilograms (4.41 pounds) of material from the asteroid in hopes to better understand the solar system’s early days, and to get a better understanding of what sort of materials may be exploitable for future use.
The spacecraft will rendezvous with Bennu in 2018, and begin an intensive examination of the asteroid culminating with the collection of material from the surface and return it to Earth in September 2023.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was on-hand to witness the historic launch. “Today, we celebrate a huge milestone for this remarkable mission, and for this mission team,” said Bolden in a release from the agency. “We’re very excited about what this mission can tell us about the origin of our solar system, and we celebrate the bigger picture of science that is helping us make discoveries and accomplish milestones that might have been science fiction yesterday, but are science facts today.”
For its part, ULA continued its laudable track record of successful launches for NASA’s science missions. “ULA and our heritage vehicles have successfully launched NASA missions to every planet in our solar system,” said Maginnis in the company’s post-launch press release. “ULA’s commitment to mission launch is unparalleled, and we’re proud of our team for continuing our unprecedented track record of 100 percent mission success.”