Last Thursday (September 10) NASA launched a spacecraft on an ambitious seven-year voyage to intercept an asteroid more than 100 million miles from Earth, scoop up a piece of it and bring the sample home. The material that OSIRIS-REx collects from its target is made of the same substances that were present at the origins of the solar system. Scientists believe that this material could help reveal how the planets were made, and maybe even learn how the ingredients for life arrived on Earth. The destination for OSIRIS-REx is an asteroid named Bennu, a 4.5-billion-year-old relic.
Bennu is large enough to be safely approached — smaller asteroids spin too wildly — and its chemical composition suggests it has persisted mostly unchanged since the solar system’s genesis. It is rich with carbon and and could contain amino acids, the building blocks of proteins that are essential for life. After rendezvousing with Bennu at a spot more than 100 million miles from where it launched, the craft will do what NASA scientist Lucy McFadden calls a “gravitational dance” with the asteroid. For two years, OSIRIS-REx will scoot alongside the space rock, surveying its surface and conducting research on its behavior.