NASA is probing where no probe has probed before, announcing a new mission to make contact with asteroid Bennu and ultimately return it to Earth for study.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe will fly to Bennu in 2018 and acquire samples of the asteroid using the Solo cup-inspired reverse vacuum device. The 4,650-pound, $800 million spacecraft will launch during a 34-day window this September and should reach Bennu sometime in 2018. The probe will collect up to four pounds of material from Bennu and return it to Earth by 2023.
“We are going out to explore an unknown world,” Dr. Dante Lauretta, a scientist at the University of Arizona who works on the mission, said in a press statement. “We’re going to map it in great detail. It will be the most well characterized asteroid in our solar system by the time we’re through with it.”
Bennu is one of many near-Earth asteroids that has a small chance of one day slamming into Earth. Returning samples from it will allow NASA to better predict how asteroids move, making it easier for the space agency to stop future rocks from striking our planet.
OSIRIS isn’t the only asteroid mission NASA is getting ready for. The space agency also plans to launch a probe in 2021 to pull an asteroid close to the moon for astronauts to study. Plans to pull the asteroid in for study have been heavily criticized by scientists and Congress.
Dr. Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a scathing take-down of the mission. Binzel said it was a “dead end,” “not a science mission,” and that it would destroy NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
Private companies also plan on sending probes to make contact with asteroids. Deep Space Industries (DSI) plans to do so in 2017, the company’s CEO told The Daily Caller News Foundation. DSI believes it can sell air, building material, water and propellant in space cheaper than launching from Earth. The company believes it can begin full-scale asteroid mining operations in the mid-2020s.
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