NASA To Bring Asteroid Parts To Earth? If Yes, Who Gets To Keep It?

First Posted: Sep 01, 2016 05:42 AM EDT

NASA is preparing to launch its first mission to return a sample of an asteroid to Earth to help scientists investigate origin of life as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth. The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid 'Bennu' and bring a sample back to Earth for intensive study.

NASA plans to launch the historic probe from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on September 8 at 7:05 a.m. Eastern time, according to the official press release. "This mission exemplifies our nation's quest to boldly go and study our solar system and beyond to better understand the universe and our place in it," said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.


The 4,650-pound (2,110-kilogram) fully-fueled spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket during a 34-day launch period that begins Sept. 8, and reach its asteroid target in 2018. It will collect between 2 and 70 ounces of surface material after a careful survey and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023.

OSIRIS-REx has five instruments to explore Bennu:

  • OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) - A system consisting of three cameras will observe Bennu and provide global imaging, sample site imaging, and will witness the sampling event.
  • OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) - A scanning LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) will be used to measure the distance between the spacecraft and Bennu's surface, and will map the shape of the asteroid.
  • OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) - It will investigate mineral abundances and provide temperature information with observations in the thermal infrared spectrum.
  • OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) - Designed to measure visible and infrared light from Bennu to identify mineral and organic material.
  • Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) - It will observe the X-ray spectrum to identify chemical elements on Bennu's surface and their abundances.

Additionally, the spacecraft has two systems that will enable the sample collection and return: Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) and OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Capsule (SRC).

Who gets to keep the Asteroid Parts?

NASA plans to scatter the asteroid to its partners around the world, a form of scientific sharing that has become common in an age of tighter budgets for astronomical discovery. Researchers are hoping for 2 ounces (60 grams) of asteroid, according to a press release.

The sample will stay at the Johnson Space Center's Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office in Houston, says Laurie Cantillo from NASA's Washington communications office. Once they have cataloged the sample's contents, NASA scientists plan to divvy them up among the mission's partners around the world.

One-quarter will go directly to the OSIRIS-REx science team for study, according to Popular Science. Of the remaining 75 percent, 5 percent will go to NASA's base in White Sands, N.M., as a type of insurance, with the Canadian and Japanese space agencies receiving 4 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively. "The goal is to have it available to be studied for decades to come," Ms. Cantillo says in an interview.

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