On Thursday night, NASA pulled off a “perfect” launch for OSIRIS-REx, the spacecraft assigned to travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, retrieve a sample, and return home for scientists to check out its payload. NASA hopes direct research of the sample could provide clues and insight as to the origins of the solar system, and perhaps even shed light on the origin of life on Earth.

But for that to happen, the team in charge of the OSIRIS-REx needs to successfully pull off a ton of different steps over the next seven years. Here’s a quick timeline for what to expect for OSIRIS-REx in the upcoming years:

  • September 8, 2016: the spacecraft will enter a deep space orbit about the sun. It will travel along this orbit for a little over a year.
  • September 23, 2017: OSIRIS-REx will do a flyby of Earth. This is intentional: the NASA team intends to do a “gravity assist” and use Earth’s orbital energy to slingshot the spacecraft farther into space towards Bennu.
  • August 17, 2018: Finally, OSIRIS-REx will complete the 2 million km journey to Bennu, and makes its way into the asteroid’s orbit. The spacecraft will need to slow down to an approach velocity of just 0.45 mph.
  • October 2018: OSIRIS-REx will survey the asteroid for about a year, mapping it in total, identifying strange or unique geological features, and scanning for potential target sites for the sample retrieval.
  • July 2020: The spacecraft will begin to position itself in preparation for an acquisition of a sample from the surface of the asteroid. OSIRIS-REx will need to execute a touch-and-go “pogo” maneuver at about 0.22 mph to collect the sample and spring back out into a safe orbital distance.
  • March 2021: The is the month the window for departing Bennu opens up. OSIRIS-REx will execute a main engine burn that helps put the spacecraft on a path towards Earth, with the goal of making it back here by around September 2023.
  • September 2023: OSIRIS-REx will jettison the capsule containing the asteroid sample about four hours away from atmospheric reentry. The sample will dive back towards Earth and land in the Utah desert for NASA to retrieve and bring back to Johnson Space Center in Houston, while OSIRIS-REx itself will perform a deflection maneuver that shoots it back into a stationary orbit around the sun.

Photos via NASA

Neel is a science and tech journalist from New York City, reporting on everything from brain-eating amoebas to space lasers used to zap debris out of orbit, for places like Popular Science and WIRED. He's addicted to black coffee, old pinball machines, and terrible dive bars.