The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) successfully launched the Atlas 5 rocket that will carry the satellite, Osiris-Rex (The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer), on its billion dollar, seven-year, nine billion mile round-trip voyage to the asteroid Bennu, named after a bird in Egyptian mythology. Its mission: to seek out the origins of life on Earth.
The 19-story tall rocket lifted off Thursday evening from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, reaching speeds of 22,000 MPH.
Some scientists believe life on Earth began when asteroids crashed down, providing the seeds for the origin of life. They believe that Bennu is covered with organic compounds dating back to the earliest days of the solar-system. A third of a mile wide and shaped like an acorn, the asteroid is orbiting the sun at roughly the same distance as Earth.
It will take the space probe two years to arrive at its destination, after which it will spend two years exploring and mapping the surface of the asteroid. The probe will analyze the surface material of the asteroid, allowing scientists to choose a likely spot for the 11- foot robot arm probe to take a two-ounce sample, using nitrogen gas to stir up the contents. Osiris-Rex will return to orbit the Earth, releasing the sample to return to the planet by parachute to a Utah landing site in December 2020.
“You can think of these asteroids as literally prebiotic chemical factories that were producing building blocks of life 4.5 billion years ago, before Earth formed, before life started here,” NASA astrobiologist Daniel Glavin said to the press before launch.
“Today, we celebrate a huge milestone for this remarkable mission, and for this mission team,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We’re very excited about what this mission can tell us about the origin of our solar system, and we celebrate the bigger picture of science that is helping us make discoveries and accomplish milestones that might have been science fiction yesterday, but are science facts today.”
The scientists do not consider the nearby asteroid to be a threat to the Earth. NASA estimates that there is a one-in-2,700 chance that Bennu might hit Earth sometime between 2175 and 2199.