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.”

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Booze-filled ski poles and crypto piggy banks

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Beautiful image of young planets sheds new light on planet formation

Researchers examining protoplanetary disks -- the belts of dust that eventually form planets -- have shared fascinating images of the planets from their survey, showing the various stages of planet formation.
Emerging Tech

Bright ‘hyperactive’ comet should be visible in the sky this weekend

An unusual green comet, 46P/Wirtanen, will be visible in the night sky this month as it makes its closest approach to Earth in 20 years. It may even be possible to see the comet without a telescope.
Emerging Tech

Say cheese: InSight lander posts a selfie from the surface of Mars

NASA's InSight mission to Mars has commemorated its arrival by posting a selfie. The selfie is a composite of 11 different images which were taken by one of its instruments, the Instrument Deployment Camera.
Emerging Tech

We’re going to the Red Planet! All the past, present, and future missions to Mars

SpaceX isn't the only organization pining to visit the Red Planet. Here's a detailed list of all operational and planned missions to Mars, along with explanations of their objectives, spacecraft details, and mission proposals.
Emerging Tech

Gorgeous images show storms and cloud formations in the atmosphere of Jupiter

NASA's Juno mission arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and has been collecting data since then. NASA has shared an update on the progress of the mission as it reaches its halfway point, releasing stunning images of the planet as seen from orbit.
Emerging Tech

Meet the MIT scientist who’s growing semi-sentient cyborg houseplants

Elowan is a cybernetic plant that can respond to its surroundings. Tethered by a few wires and silver electrodes, the plant-robot hybrid can move in response to bioelectrochemical signals that reflect the plant’s light demands.
Emerging Tech

Delivery robot goes up in flames while out and about in California

A small meal-delivery robot suddenly caught fire in Berkeley, California, on Friday. The blaze was quickly tackled and no one was hurt, but the incident is nevertheless a troubling one for the fledgling robot delivery industry.
Emerging Tech

High-tech dancing robot turns out to be a guy in a costume

A Russian TV audience was impressed recently by an adult-sized "robot" that could dance and talk. But when some people began pointing out that its actions were a bit odd, the truth emerged ... it was a fella in a robot suit.
Emerging Tech

MIT’s smart capsule could be used to release drugs in response to a fever

Researchers have developed a 3D-printed capsule which can monitor patients' vital signs, transmit this information to a connected device, and release drugs in response to symptoms.
Emerging Tech

‘Crop duster’ robot is helping reseed the Great Barrier Reef with coral

In a world first, an undersea robot has delivered microscopic coral larvae to the Great Barrier Reef. Meet Larvalbot: the robot "crop duster" which dispenses coral babies on troubled reefs.
Emerging Tech

Self-driving dirt rally vehicle offers crash course in autonomous car safety

Georgia Tech's AutoRally initiative pushes self-driving cars to their limit by getting scaled-down autonomous vehicles to drive really, really fast and aggressively on dirt roads. Here's why.
Features

Cities looking to get smart take a lesson from an iconic shopping mall

From Disney World to the Mall of America, public venues are becoming microcosms for smart city projects. We dove into both, to show what government officials can learn – and what you can expect from your city.
Photography

Forget painting-style transfers, this A.I. creates realistic portraits of fake people

Do these images look computer-generated? Nvidia researchers recently published a paper on a new variation on style transfer artificial intelligence that's able to generate entirely new portraits.