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Asteroid sample mission begins assembly and testing

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Apr 7, 2015, 16:47 UTC

Sen—NASA's mission to return to Earth with a sample from an asteroid has begun assembly and test operations as it progresses towards a launch scheduled for late 2016.

The mission, called the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), will rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu in 2018.

OSIRIS-REx will orbit Bennu until 2021 to map and evaluate the surface of the asteroid before collecting a 60 gram (2oz) sample of surface material to be returned to Earth in 2023.

Asteroid Bennu measures about 575 metres (one-third of a mile) in diameter. It is classified as a B-type asteroid, a rare subgroup of dark, carbonaceous C-type asteroids containing rich organic compounds. Studying the asteroid will help scientists understand whether such asteroids might may have helped seed life on Earth.

OSIRIS-REx will carry five instruments which are currently being tested before integration with the spacecraft.

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The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft core structure is successfully lowered and mated to the hydrazine propellant tank and boat tail assembly at Lockheed Martin. Image credit: Lockheed Martin

"The spacecraft structure has been integrated with the propellant tank and propulsion system and is ready to begin system integration in the Lockheed Martin highbay,” explained Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement. “The payload suite of cameras and sensors is well into its environmental test phase and will be delivered later this summer/fall.”

The next major review of the mission will take place in June.

OSIRIS-REx forms part of NASA's Asteroid Initiative to learn more about near-Earth asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet. The program includes the robotic Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) to capture and relocate a boulder from an asteroid into an orbit around the Moon by 2024.

Bennu's 1.2-year orbit around the Sun takes it close to Earth every six years. Scientists calculate there is a one-in-1800 chance of Bennu impacting the Earth in 2182.

So far NASA has identified more than 12,000 Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) including most near-Earth asteroids larger than one km (0.6 miles) across. Though no objects of this size pose a hazard to Earth in the next 100 years, smaller asteroids could present an impact threat.

Asteroid Bennu's Journey. Credit: NASA Goddard