On September 9th, NASA successfully launched a probe called OSIRIS REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The probe’s mission is to travel to the asteroid Bennu and collect at least sixty grams worth of material, one of the largest samples brought back from space since the 1960s. NASA has hailed the launch a success. The launch went smoothly, and the spacecraft has since established clear communications with Earth.
OSIRIS-REx will not directly land on the asteroid but will, instead, skim the surface and vacuum up key samples such as dust and rock fragments. Asteroids have been recognized in the scientific community as excellent time markers since the material on their surface reflects the chemical components available at the time of their creation. Bennu is a particularly significant asteroid in this regard, as not only is it relatively close to Earth but it is hypothesized to be around 4.5 billion years old. By comparison, some of the oldest rocks on Earth have been dated to be about 3.8 billion years old. Our solar system has been estimated to be 4.6 billion years old, lending Bennu to be an early fragment from our system’s history. The material that the probe collects could, therefore, lend some clues about the chemical composition of our early solar system.
Bennu is classified as a B-Type asteroid and is, thus, expected to be relatively carbon-rich. Carbon is noted to be one of the elementals that make up the building blocks of organic life. NASA scientists hope that, by analyzing Bennu’s material, they can discover hints about early life on Earth or, perhaps, the existence of organic life elsewhere in our solar system.
The probe is expected to reach Bennu in August 2018 and will continue on its seven-year mission until September 2023.