This space probe is almost ready to sample an asteroid -- and resolve a mystery of life's origins

Osiris rex nasa asteroidNASAAn illustration of OSIRIS-REx flying to the asteroid Bennu.

Lockheed Martin just finished building the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft for NASA.

If all goes according to plan, the 1.7-ton probe will launch next year toward an asteroid called Bennu, then bring the first-ever samples of an asteroid back to Earth.

Astronomers think the asteroid samples could reveal how our solar system formed and help explain how life began on Earth.

Asteroids are like floating time capsules — preserved chunks of the same stuff that was present during the birth of the solar system. The space rocks likely spawned out of a super-heated cloud of hydrogen, helium, and dust, forming before the first planets.

Asteroids are rich in water and carbon-based materials, and many astronomers think that when Jupiter formed, its massive gravity flung countless asteroids toward the sun.

They rained down on the inner planets and may have carried the ingredients of life to early Earth:

Early earth asteroidsNASAArtist’s impression of early Earth being bombarded with asteroids.

If scientists can capture a pristine piece of a dirty asteroid in space, they’d get a chance to analyse it and see how strong this hypothesis is.

Although the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is built, it still has to pass five months’ worth of tests before it can fly to Bennu. According to NASA, the asteroid is in near-Earth orbit, or within about 121 million miles of us.

This is closer than most asteroids, but the spacecraft likely won’t reach Bennu until 2019. After it arrives, OSIRIS-REx will collect at least a 60-gram sample of carbon-laced asteroid rock — about a small bag of chips’ worth of weight — and return it to Earth in 2023, according to the mission description from Lockheed Martin.

Here’s what the finished spacecraft looks like:

This mission will act as a stepping stone toward NASA’s asteroid redirect mission, where the agency plans to rope an asteroid, tow it near Earth, and send astronauts to explore it.

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