Tonight, NASA will launch a rocket-fuelled, minivan-sized spacecraft on a seven-year-journey through space — all for a pile of dirt. But this isn’t just any dirt. This dirt could hold the key to answering some of our biggest questions about the universe, such as where we came from, and why we exist.
The mission: OSIRIS-Rex, the United States’ first asteroid sample return mission … ever. The destination: An asteroid named Bennu, a cosmic time capsule of sorts that contains dusty, 4.5-billion-year old relics from the birth of our solar system. It will take the spacecraft two years to traverse the 120-mile-distance between Earth and Bennu.
But the road trip doesn’t end there. When OSIRIS-Rex finally reaches Bennu in September 2019, it will pump the brakes and slow down to a leisurely 63,000-mile-per-hour tread to match the speed at which Bennu hurtles around the sun. After surveying the asteroid for a spell, the spacecraft will try to enter the 1,614-foot-wide hunk of rock’s weak orbit.
At about the size of the Empire State Building, Bennu will be the smallest object NASA has ever attempted to orbit. And it won’t be easy because, well, gravity (smaller objects mean less gravity, which makes orbiting the objects pretty tricky).
During its mile-long orbit around Bennu, OSIRIS-Rex will snap pictures every two hours, which will be transmitted back to Earth to help NASA keep the spacecraft on course.
The spacecraft, equipped with a suite of scientific instruments, will also take measurements of the asteroid to map its surface in 3D and get information about its geology.
It will also scope out the best spot for the mission’s primary goal: Gathering a scoop of spacedirt that scientists back on Earth will use to tell the story of the birth of our solar system.
After a year, the spacecraft will cosy up to the asteroid (it will be too dangerous to manoeuvre a landing) and slowly stretch out its 10-foot-long arm toward Bennu’s dusty surface where it will capture a few breaths of the asteroid’s dirt and store it away in a capsule.
Then OSIRIS-Rex will begin its journey back to Earth and in September 2023, it will parachute down in the Utah desert, carrying some of the most important samples ever gathered from space.
If OSIRIS-Rex succeeds, it will not only bring home the largest asteroid sample ever. It will bring home the largest sample collected since the Apollo missions to the moon. And just a couple ounces of this dirt and gravel could help us finally explain the origin of life on our planet.
The spacecraft is scheduled to launch out of Cape Canaveral between 7:05 p.m. and 9:05 p.m. ET. NASA’s live coverage will begin at 4:30 p.m. ET. You can check it out here or below: