Nasa has launched a new probe into space named Osiris-Rex following the successful take-off of an Atlas V rocket.
The probe-carrying rocket left Earth at 00:05 BST (19:05 local time) from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, beginning a seven-year long mission to an asteroid named Bennu – part of the Apollo group asteroids which have the potential to swing closely past our planet. It is expected to arrive at Bennu at some point in August 2018, spending a little more than two years there before heading home.
Asteroids are remnants of the Solar System’s past, leftovers from the materials that collided to bring our sun and its planets into being. It is widely believed by scientists that these remains will give us a deeper and more accurate insight into the elements and reactions which occurred in the Solar System’s formation.
Nasa’s chief scientist Ellen Stofan said: “Tonight is a night for celebration, we are on the way to an asteroid. We’re going to be answering some of the most fundamental questions that Nasa works on.”
Osiris-Rex has been tasked with collecting a sample from Bennu and returning it to Earth, due to touch down in the Utah desert approximately 24 September 2023.
Though there have been previous sample return missions – notably a Japanese voyage to an asteroid named Itokawa in 2010 – none have been as ambitious as Osiris-Rex, which hopes to bring back significant amounts of material such as meteoric dust.
To do so, Osiris-Rex has had an extendable arm built into it, which will reach out to the asteroid and collect material having first surveyed and mapped the surface. The robotic probe will also analyse the way asteroids alter their paths through space, offering scientists the chance to understand changes in trajectory and whether there is a real risk of any steering towards Earth.
Part of Nasa’s New Frontiers Program, the Osiris-Rex mission is the third in a line of space operations contributing to our understanding of the Solar System, following in the footsteps of New Horizons and Juno. Osiris-Rex promises new discoveries, but it’s far more probable that the answers it brings back from space will raise further questions.