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NASA preps for seven-year journey to sample a near-Earth asteroid

You can add asteroid retrieval to NASA’s growing repertoire of space exploration skills. The space agency last week announced that it is preparing to embark on a seven-year mission to retrieve a piece of an asteroid. It will be NASA’s first mission that will return an asteroid sample for analysis. If all goes as planned, the asteroid chunk will be transported back to earth in 2023 for detailed analysis by researchers at NASA and the University of Arizona.

The mission will be powered by the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft. Designed and manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft was built from the ground up for asteroid retrieval. It features Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) that uses a reverse vacuum to stir up asteroid dust for collection. The mechanism can collect up to 70 ounces of material in a ring-shaped canister. It also can study the asteroid in situ before sampling using a suite of instrumentation that includes visible-light cameras, infrared spectrometers, an x-ray spectrometer and an active-scanning lidar.

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Nasa plans to launch the OSIRIS-REx during the launch window that begins on September 8. The spacecraft will be propelled into space using an Atlas V411 rocket and maneuver towards the Bennu asteroid. The spacecraft will travel up to 509 million miles to intercept the asteroid and will move along with it during sampling. The spacecraft will then return to Earth, traveling a total of 4.4 billion miles in the round trip journey.

When it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, the Sample Return Capsule will hit 27,700 mph, making it the second-fastest man-made object to travel back to earth. Scientist hopes the data collected from the asteroid will provide insight into the formation of the planets as well as help scientists understand the nature or near-Earth asteroids.