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If all goes well, NASA’s latest spacecraft will capture samples off an asteroid in 2020 and then return them to Earth. Here’s how.If NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft were penning a memoir, it might be titled, “There and Back Again: A Spacecraft’s Tale.”

The memoir would begin at 7 p.m. eastern time on September 8th, when the launch window opens for blast-off from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. If all goes well, OSIRIS-REx will visit the asteroid Bennu and bring pieces of it back to Earth in 2023.

OSIRIS-REx (yes that’s an acronym, more on that in a minute) is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, which previously sent the New Horizons spacecraft zooming by Pluto and the Juno spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter. Unlike its predecessors, though, this spacecraft is a) coming back and b) going to bring a bit of interplanetary rock with it.

“This is a dark asteroid that we have found, and that we’re going to hunt down, we’re going to orbit, we’re going to take a good look at it, and we’re going to bring back a sample,“ says NASA’s Jim Green.

Scientists hope the sample return mission will reveal a new understanding of the ingredients that make up the solar system, as well as help develop defenses against interloping asteroids.

But there are lots of things that could go wrong: OSIRIS-REx is a complicated mission, and space, as we’ve seen all too clearly over this last week, is a tough frontier to penetrate.

But it’s worth it.

“It really is a great adventure. We are going out into the unknown and bringing back a scientific treasure,” says mission principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.

Curious about this mission? Here’s everything you need to know, and possibly a few things you didn’t.


And will take a minimum of seven years. First, after looping once around the sun, the spacecraft will fly passed Earth again on Sept. 22, 2017. By August 2018, Bennu will become a pixel in the spacecraft’s eyes. Over the following two years, as the spacecraft approaches its target, it will map the asteroid’s topography, and figure out where best to land and capture a sample. Ideally, mission members say, that sample will be collected in July 2020. But OSIRIS-REx won’t be leaving Bennu until March 2021 at the earliest, so there’s some wiggle room. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will return to Earth’s neighbourhood and release a capsule containing those bits of Bennu on September 17, 2023.

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