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NASA's first-of-its kind near-Earth asteroid mission lifts off

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will travel to the asteroid Bennu and bring a sample back to Earth for study. Photograph: (Reuters)

Reuters Cape Canaveral, FL, United States Sep 09, 2016, 01.07 AM (IST)

A first-of-its kind near-Earth asteroid mission launched by US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) lifted off today to collect carbon samples from an asteroid, a cosmic body that may have delivered life-giving materials to our planet billions of years. 

The unmanned spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, blasted off at 7:05 pm (23:05 GMT) atop an Atlas V rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The robot explorer has been built by Lockheed Martin to carry out the seven-year, $1 billion mission to and from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.

Scientists hope the seven-year round mission will be able to clues about how life began. 

"As the spacecraft soared high above the western tip of Australia, OSIRIS-REx has reached Earth-escape velocity of more than 22,000 miles (35,400 kilometers) per hour," NASA spokesman Mike Curie said an hour after takeoff, according to AFP. 

It is flying free on its way to a seven-year mission to rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu and return a sample to Earth.

The 3,300-pound (1,500-kg) solar-powered probe separated from the rocket's upper stage an hour after blastoff, is soaring into space at a speed which is 28 times more than speed of the sound. 

"For primitive, carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu, materials are preserved from over four and a half billion years ago," explained Christina Richey, OSIRIS-REx deputy program scientist at NASA.

These "may be the precursors to life in Earth or elsewhere in our solar system."

OSIRIS-REx's main goal is to gather dirt and debris from the surface of the asteroid and return it to Earth by 2023 for further study.

Learning more about the origins of life and the beginning of the solar system are key objectives for the SUV-sized OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer.

The mission should also shed light on how to find precious resources such as water and metals in asteroids, a field that has generated increasing interest worldwide, AFP news agency said. 

"We are going to map this brand-new world that we have never seen before," Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson, has been quoted as saying by AFP. 

(WION with inputs from agencies) 

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