We’re Finally Going to an Asteroid and Bringing a Piece Back

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Forget the Moon, we’re going to an asteroid, and this time, we’re bringing a piece of the rock back.

So sayeth NASA, who just announced they’ve approved a robo-spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx (that weirdly translates as “fertility king,” in case you’re wondering) to swing by near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36 and scrape a few bits off.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins Spectral-Interpretation Resource-Identification Security Regolith Explorer, will launch in 2016 and reach RQ36 in 2019. Oh, and it’s a robot, or at least a “robotic craft,” which—coupled to my crude Egyptian-Latinate translation—makes it sound like something out of Erich von Däniken’s kooky Chariots of the Gods?

NASA picked the OSIRIS-REx proposal from three posed through its New Frontiers Program, whose purpose is to explore the solar system using cost-effective unmanned spacecraft. On the cutting room floor: a trip to the dark side of the moon, and another to land a crewless craft on the surface of planetary hothouse, Venus. It’s not clear what either of those would have cost, but OSIRIS-REx will set NASA back about one billion U.S. dollars.

How big is asteroid RQ36? Around 575 meters, and it orbits the sun at a speed of about 8.7 miles per second—about half the speed of Earth’s roughly 19 miles per second. It’s one of various near-Earth objects monitored because it might impact the Earth between 2169 and 2199 (though the estimated probability of that happening is currently less than one-tenth of one percent).

Why RQ36, of all the near-Earth asteroids? Because it’s a time machine!

Okay, not really, but like a time machine, says OSIRIS-REx mission honcho Michael Drake. Drake believes matter scooped from the asteroid could tell us whether asteroids like RQ36 “seeded” life on planets like our own.

Also: how likely the sun is to fiddle with RQ36’s orbit. When an object absorbs and radiates back solar energy, its orbit can change slightly, something that’s known as the “Yarkovsky effect.” Giving RQ36 its closeup would help us more accurately gauge near-Earth object impact probabilities.

Best of all, though: we’ll be able to watch the whole thing on TV. Drake says they’ll be streaming “near real-time, almost movie-quality video” of the mission, which probably won’t be as riveting (or foolish) as movies like Deep Impact or Armageddon, but should have NASA-philes on tenterhooks when NASA broadcasts the sampling event itself—the part where OSIRIS-REx “reaches out” to grab a couple ounces of RQ36 to bring home in 2023.

(via National Geographic)