On Thursday, September 8, there will be cause for celebration as it’s the 50th anniversary since Star Trek first aired on our screens. But that’s not the only thing that’s boldly going where no one has gone before, because NASA’s gearing up to launch an incredible mission to explore a strange new world.
In two days, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is set to launch on top of an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. If you haven’t heard of the mission, there’s every reason to be excited. The spacecraft is going to rendezvous with an asteroid called 101955 Bennu, collect a large sample, and then bring that material back to Earth to be studied.
A two-hour launch window opens at 7.05pm EDT on Thursday (00.05am BST the next day), and it will all be streamed live on NASA TV for you to watch. We’ve embedded the channel below where you’ll be able to catch all of the action.
“The primary objective of the mission is to bring back 60 grams [0.1 pounds] of pristine carbon-rich material from the surface of Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator on the mission and a professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, in a statement. “We expect these samples will contain organic molecules from the early Solar System that may give us information and clues to the origin of life.”
The journey to the asteroid is expected to take about two years, with the spacecraft arriving in August 2018. Once there, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) will use five instruments to map the surface, and select a location from which to take a sample.
Then, in July 2020, the main event begins. The spacecraft will approach the surface and hover just meters away, when it will deploy a robotic arm called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), which will contact the surface of Bennu for five seconds, releasing up to three bursts of nitrogen gas. Loose bits of material will be stirred up into the head of the collector.
Above, the Atlas V spacecraft prepares for the launch. NASA