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A NASA probe is headed to a nearby asteroid, and will bring part of it back to Earth

While it may not have made major headlines, a rocket was launched this week with a groundbreaking payload: the first spacecraft designed to bring back samples from a faraway asteroid. Its final destination is the asteroid Bennu, a 510 million mile trip that is expected to take about two years.

The $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission isn’t just about collecting the sample. It will orbit the asteroid for about two years to study it, and then make a close approach in July 2020 to scoop up some regolith, the scientific name for the dirt and rocks on the asteroid’s surface.

If all goes well, the probe will return to Earth September 2023. The canister will hold less than five pounds of the sample, but scientists hope what they find in that regolith will help to explain the early formational period of our own solar system.

Scooping up — and then returning — dirt from an asteroid’s surface is no small feat. Scientists controlling the craft would need to delicately place the craft within 11 feet of the surface, and then extend an arm with a circular disk to the surface. Once that disk touches the surface, it would blast nitrogen against the surface, which would be blown up and into the canister.

Depending on how well things go, between two ounces to 4.7 pounds of dust would be retrieved, and then the probe will be redirected back towards Earth for processing. If successful, it will be the largest amount of material retrieved and returned to Earth since the manned Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s an exciting project; one that could change what we think we know about the earliest days of the solar system

“We’re going to reach out and touch it and bring treasure back to Earth for scientific analysis,” principal scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona at Tucson. “The asteroids record the earliest stages of the solar system so it really is a time capsule from the very dawn of the history of our solar system.”