A NASA spacecraft that’s going to collect samples from an asteroid hurtling through space has successfully completed the first stage of its 7-year-long mission.
The probe, OSIRIS-REx, was situated aboard an Atlas V rocket that appeared to launch without a hitch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral at 7:05 p.m. EST on Thursday night, September 8.
It’s just the first leg of an incredibly long and unprecedented journey for the probe. OSIRIS-REx is embarking on a mission to Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid that scientists think might hold clues about the origins of our solar system. Astrophysicists and astrobiologists might even be able to use the samples learn more about how life began in the universe.
Bennu, which is bigger than the Empire State Building, also has a “relatively high probability” of impacting Earth in the late 22nd Century, according to NASA, so OSIRIS-REx could uncover information that might help the planet out should the unthinkable happen.
(It’s only a 1 in 2,700 chance, but still.)
When OSIRIS-REx left the Earth’s atmosphere, it was traveling more than 12,000 miles per hour. After orbiting the sun for a year, it’s going to swing back by Earth in September 2017 to get an orbital assist from its home planet, sending it off on a course to intersect with Bennu in August of the following year.
The spacecraft will then survey Bennu until the summer of 2020, when the big event — the sample collection — will take place.
OSIRIS-REx is equipped with a Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, an arm that will reach down and touch the asteroid’s surface and eject a burst of nitrogen gas that should caus loose rocks and surface soil to fly into the sampler head.
If all goes as planned, OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth on September 24, 2023.
It’s fitting (if coincidental) that the launch took place on September 8, since it’s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. OSIRIS-REx will boldly go where no, uh, probe has gone before on its journey to the asteroid.
Watch the launch here.
Photos via NASA