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NASA's sample return mission to an asteroid moves into development

Jenny Winder, News Writer
May 18, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—NASA's first mission to return sample from an asteroid is moving ahead into development and testing in preparation for its launch in 2016.

NASA officials recently reviewed detailed project assessments for the mission to the asteroid Bennu which is called OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, and Regolith Explorer). The review gave the green light to the spacecraft's continuation into the development phase.

"Successfully passing KDP-C [Key Decision Point] is a major milestone for the project," said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "This means NASA believes we have an executable plan to return a sample from Bennu. It now falls on the project and its development team members to execute that plan."

OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu, which could hold clues to the origin of the solar system, in 2018. It will collect a minimum of 2 ounces (60 grams) of surface material and return the sample to Earth in 2023.

The mission will also map the asteroid's global properties, measure non-gravitational forces and provide observations that can be compared with data obtained by telescope observations from Earth. There is also a proposal to send a second spacecraft, ISIS, that would perform a high speed impact on the surface that the OSIRIS-REx cameras would watch.

"The entire OSIRIS-REx team has worked very hard to get to this point," said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "We have a long way to go before we arrive at Bennu , but I have every confidence when we do, we will have built a supremely capable system to return a sample of this primitive asteroid."

Bennu measures 575 meters (one-third of a mile) in diameter. It is classified as a B-type asteroid, a rare subgroup of the dark, carbonaceous C-type asteroids, which are called "primitive" having undergone little processing from their time of formation.

The mission could give scientists a greater understanding of planet formation and the origin of life, as well as improving our knowledge of asteroids that could impact Earth. It is a vital part of NASA's plans to find, study, capture and relocate an asteroid for exploration by astronauts. NASA recently announced an asteroid initiative proposing a strategy of human and robotic activities for the first human mission to an asteroid while also accelerating efforts to improve detection and characterization of asteroids.