One week to the day after a SpaceX rocket exploded dramatically on the launchpad, and NASA has successfully pulled off a rocket launch for a groundbreaking mission that they said was “exactly perfect.”
The agency sent the OSIRIS-REx probe into space on Thursday night, and the probe began a 7-year journey that will take it to a distant asteroid Bennu and back — with unprecedented samples from the asteroid in tow.
The launch of the Atlas V rocket carrying the spacecraft appeared flawless, and in a press conference after the event, NASA said it was.
“We hit all of our milestones within seconds of the predicts,” said Dante Lauretta, the project’s principal investigator. “Really kicked that field goal right down the center of the goal posts,” he continued.
“Once you stopped being able to see the rocket, there was still about an hour’s worth of work,” explained Rich Kuhns, the project’s program manager with Lockheed Martin Space Systems. All of the unseen action went flawlessly as well, as OSIRIS-REx had successfully deployed both its solar arrays, and had established two-way communications with the ground within 40 minutes of its launch.
The next “hold your breath moment” for the team is going to be when they get the first resolve images of the asteroid, according to Lauretta.
Though the launch was a rousing success, it was bittersweet in one sad respect. OSIRIS-REx’s original principal investigator, Michael Drake, died of liver cancer in September of 2011 shortly after the project began. “I really missed him. He would’ve been thrilled.” Lauretta said. “Wish he was there with me.”
Lauretta continued, explaining that Drake always praised NASA not just “for the great science,” but for “all the educational opportunities [and] the inspirational opportunities.”
Should the rest of OSIRIS-REx’s mission go as smoothly as the launch, it’ll provide a bevy of new information when it returns with the samples in 2023.
OSIRIS-REx will help scientists better track Bennu and predict its orbit — which is good because it has a small chance of impacting Earth in the late 22nd Century — and better predict the orbits of similar asteroids.
As for the samples themselves? NASA is going to continue to be “slow and careful and methodical,” and plans to keep the samples as clean as possible. The agency is looking forward to studying the asteroid rocks and dust with lab technology that haven’t even been built yet.
“Let’s go get the science!” Kuhns said, excitedly.
Photos via Getty Images / NASA, NASA