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OSIRIS-REx launch
An Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe into space. (Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA>

NASA launched its OSIRIS-REx probe today on America’s first mission to snag samples from a near-Earth asteroid and bring them back to Earth – and added a Star Trek twist.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, tricked out with a single solid rocket booster, sent up the car-sized spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:05 p.m. ET (4:05 p.m. PT) today. Crowds gathered around the launch site to watch, and myriads more kept an eye on NASA TV’s video stream.

As NASA launch commentator Mike Curie announced OSIRIS-REx’s liftoff, he gave a nod to the “Star Trek” TV saga, which made its U.S. premiere 50 years ago today.

“Its seven-year mission: to boldly go to the asteroid Bennu and back,” said Curie, echoing the show’s traditional intro.

At a post-launch news conference, scientists and mission planners reported that the mission’s start was a complete success. “Tonight is a night for celebration,” NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan said. “We are on our way to an asteroid!”

Bennu is a roughly quarter-mile-wide space rock that traces an orbit overlapping Earth’s. The probe is due to reach the carbon-bearing, organic-rich asteroid in 2018, and will study it from a distance for two years.

In 2020, OSIRIS-REx will circle down close to the surface and stick out a 10-foot-long robotic arm to touch the surface for several seconds at a time. The arm has an sampler head that’s designed to puff out bursts of nitrogen gas, stir up rocks and bits of grit and suck them in like a carpet sweeper.

The probe will get three chances to snag samples, and then the attachment will be tucked into a sample return capsule for safekeeping. NASA expects to get at least 2 ounces of material, and potentially as much as 4.4 pounds.

In 2021, OSIRIS-REx will begin the journey back to Earth. The plan calls for the sample return capsule to be sent down to the Utah Test and Training Range in September 2023 for retrieval. The round-trip mileage is expected to amount to more than 4 billion miles, which exceeds the distance between Earth and Pluto.

OSIRIS-REx is a tortured acronym that stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (and draws additional inspiration from ancient Egyptian myth).

This isn’t the first sample return mission involving an asteroid: Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft touched down on asteroid Itokawa and brought specks of dust back to Earth in 2010. A follow-up probe was launched to a different asteroid in 2014. But the $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission is a first for NASA, and the scientific return is expected to be greater.

An artist’s conception shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe preparing to collect a sample from asteroid Bennu. (Credit: NASA / GSFC)

Researchers will sift through the data that the probe beams back during the mission, as well as the samples that are brought back for study. Their analysis should provide insights into how the solar system was formed, how potentially threatening asteroids can be diverted, and how future space explorers can take advantage of what asteroids have to offer.

Two U.S. ventures are planning to target near-Earth asteroids like Bennu for mining operations, with the eventual goal of extracting water and other potentially valuable space resources.

One company, Deep Space Industries, is based in California and plans to send its own probe to an asteroid by 2020. The other company is Planetary Resources – which is based in Redmond, Wash., and plans to start extracting materials from asteroids by the mid-2020s.

Both companies also have operations in the European nation of Luxembourg, which has set up a multimillion-dollar initiative to foster asteroid mining.

For more about OSIRIS-REx, check in with NASA’s website and mission blog, as well as the mission’s Twitter account (@OSIRISREx) and Facebook page.

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