In a first, US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is all set to launch a near-Earth asteroid mission to collect pristine carbon samples and shed light on the "dawn of the solar system".
The Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security- Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will travel to a near-Earth asteroid, called Bennu (formerly 1999 RQ36), and bring at least a 2.1-ounce sample back to Earth for study, according to NASA.
According the space agency, the $800 mn mission "will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth."
The official Twitter account for the ambitious mission remains abuzz with updates ahead of the launch. Social media users have got their queries answered using the #askNASA hashtag
The spacecraft is set to blast off Thursday at 7:05 pm (2305 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Weather forecasters have said that there is 80 per cent chance of favourable launch of the mission.
'A small mountain in space'
According the space agency, the $800 mission "will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth."
"The primary objective of the mission is to bring back 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of pristine carbon-rich material from the surface of Bennu," Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of the mission and a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona, was quoted as saying by AFP.
"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."
OSIRIX-REx, about 1,600 feet (492 meters) in diameter, is expected to reach Bennu in August 2018 and return to Earth with its bounty in 2023. "Think of it as a small mountain in space," Lauretta said.
According to NASA estimates, the asetroid's 1.2-year orbit around the sun brings it closer to Earth every six years at a distance similar to the moon, although there is very little chance Bennu could collide with Earth.
NASA Scientists estimate there is a one-in-800 chance that Bennu might actually hit Earth 166 years from now. The highest probability, one in 2,500, would occur between 2175 and 2196.
The space agency points out that asteroids are remnants of the building blocks that formed the planets and enabled life and "those like Bennu contain natural resources such as water, organics and metals."
Rendezvouz with the asteroid
According to a fact sheet provided by NASA, the spacecraft "will orbit the sun for a year, then use Earth’s gravitational field to assist it on its way to Bennu".
"In August 2018, OSIRIS-REx’s approach to Bennu will begin. It will use an array of small rocket thrusters to match the velocity of Bennu and rendezvous with the asteroid," the fact sheet says.
"'The spacecraft will begin a detailed survey of Bennu two months after slowing to encounter Bennu. The process will last over a year, and, as part of it, OSIRIS-REx will map potential sample sites."
After the mission is completed, the spcacraft will not return. It will be placed in a solar orbit.
(WION with inputs from agencies)