Earth to Get Hit: NASA’s Space Probe to Attach To Asteroid, Take a Pivotal Role in Asteroid Study

Get ready to wake up tomorrow morning to a new NASA mission.

To test the nation’s ability to protect the Earth from asteroids, NASA’s Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft, or OSIRIS-REx, will slam into an asteroid.

“We are incredibly excited to look ahead to 2019 with OSIRIS-REx and the more than a half million people that will be at Utah State University to celebrate our program success and launch,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

Focusing on assessing hazardous asteroids with its prospective solar-powered robotic spacecraft, the mission was to rendezvous with asteroid Bennu, a small, 1,600-foot wide space rock between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, in September 2016. The mission, however, was suspended due to infighting in Congress, budget cutting and changes in the outlook for human spaceflight in space. With the mission back on track, NASA aims to rendezvous with the space rock and collect a sample in August 2018.

Close encounter

The encounter may be dramatic, but it’s nothing compared to the experience orbiting the moon for lunar explorers, such as the Apollo 13 astronauts of the 1970s.

NASA’s new asteroid sample return project, OSIRIS-REx, will make the first-ever-grazing flyby of a comet or asteroid.

Alas, OSIRIS-REx is a relatively small space craft with six return legs that allows it to plow through the asteroid’s surface. NASA expects the spacecraft to make a nine-second impact into the surface at a one-third-mile-high angle. During the impact, only a few percent of the dust that has been churned out by the impact will survive.

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Yet, the impact will certainly set off a flurry of rippling rock fragments that will be beamed back to Earth.

Besides extinguishing the dust from the target object, OSIRIS-REx will screen for toxic chemicals from the asteroid while using its onboard scientific instruments to study the terrain for signs of geological processes.

In a press conference Monday, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, from the University of Arizona, said the impact would likely be no worse than a 3.3-m asteroid, which can cause immense damage. The scientific impact of the collision will be through the collection of rocks from asteroid Bennu that provide details about its composition and surface features.

The debris from the impact will provide a valuable opportunity to learn more about the solar system’s asteroids, with researchers picking up new insights into how the body survived its initial formation and evolved throughout time.

While Bennu is “clean,” NASA expects it to look like a minefield. Several 50- to 1,000-foot asteroids are known to have lurking inside this asteroid belt.

See, it works.

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