NASA successfully launched a space probe bound for the asteroid Bennu Thursday, September 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET.
OSIRIS-REx, short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification-Regolith Explorer, should reach the near-Earth asteroid by 2018. “Near” is a relative term here, since Bennu is about 121 million miles away.
NASA scientists are hoping the nearly $1 billion mission will help them unravel how life began on Earth, how the solar system formed, and how to protect our planet from stray asteroids like Bennu.
The 190-foot tall Atlas V rocket launched right on time in perfect weather conditions from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Thursday, bound for Bennu:
Once OSIRIS-REx reaches the asteroid is when the real nail-biting part of the mission begins.
It would be too tricky to land on the asteroid, so the space probe will reach out its 10-foot robotic arm to poke Bennu and capture just about 2 ounces of dust. After a two year journey, this sample collection will take just five seconds.
OSIRIS-REx will store the sample for its return trip to Earth. In 2023, just the container holding the sample will re-enter the atmosphere and fall down to Earth, aided by a parachute. NASA expects it to land in Utah, and scientists can begin studying the sample.
This launch occurred exactly a week after SpaceX’s planned launch of a satellite for Facebook exploded on the launch pad. Luckily, the explosion was at a location down the road from NASA’s launch pad for the asteroid mission, so the agency didn’t face any delays.