UPDATE: NASA to Launch Asteroid Sample-Return Mission in 2016

UPDATE: NASA to Launch Asteroid Sample-Return Mission in 2016

UPDATE: This article is updated with information from the media teleconference that was held this afternoon and adds a link to the press release. To hear a replay of the teleconference, call 800-756-2728.

NASA announced this afternoon that it will launch a sample-return mission to an asteroid in 2016 as the next in its New Frontiers series of planetary exploration spacecraft.

The mission’s ungainly name is OSIRIS-ReX for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer. In a press release, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that the mission is a “critical step” in meeting President Obama’s objective to “extend our reach beyond low-Earth orbit.” Robotic missions will “pave the way for future human space missions,” he added.

OSIRIS-ReX will take four years to reach its destination, a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) designated 1999 RQ36. After mapping the surface of the 1,900 foot diameter asteroid to determine the best spot from which to extract samples, a robotic arm will reach out to collect two ounces of material. The sample will return to Earth in 2023 in a container similar to what was used for NASA’s Stardust mission that returned samples of a comet. It will land at Utah’s Test and Training Range and then be taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center near Houston, TX.

The mission is expected to cost $800 million, not including launch costs. During a media teleconference this afternoon, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green said that he will not know the cost of the launch vehicle until closer to the launch date, but he anticipates that the total mission cost will be about $1 billion.

Michael Drake of the University of Arizona in Tucson is the principal investigator for the mission, which will be managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The spacecraft will be built by Lockheed Martin.

During the media teleconference, Drake said that the arm that will collect the sample has been designed by Lockheed Martin and tested already. He said that 60 grams of material is the minimim amount of sample needed for scientific studies and in all the tests at least that amount was collected. The arm, which he described as similar to a pogo stick with an elbow, will “kiss the surface” of the asteroid and most of the sample will be collected in the first second; the entire sample collection period is just 5 seconds. Animation of the mission is available on NASA’s website.

In response to questions about what was learned from the challenges encountered by Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft, Drake said that the primary lesson was that the Japanese did not allow enough time to study the asteroid once the spacecraft arrived to help ensure the sample collection succeeded. Hayabusa did return a very small amount of asteroid material, but not as much as anticipated. OSIRIS-ReX, by contrast, will spend almost a year at the asteroid and take a step-by-step approach to proximity operations. The spacecraft will repeatedly move near to the asteroid and back off. Once it is 30 meters from the surface, it will match the asteroid’s rotation rate and “once we’ve got that right” the sample will be collected.

Drake and his team are interested in this carbon-rich type of asteriod — as compared to the stony-type visited by Hayabusa — because they hope it contains organic material from the time the solar system formed. In response to a question about how he will handle contamination issues, especially since the objective is to find and return organic material, Drake said that the sample return hardware will have “witness plates” so that if contamination occurs from spacecraft outgassing, for example, at least scientsts will know what it is. He called it contamination-knowledge as compared with contamination control. The witness plates will be stored with the samples at Johnson Space Center.

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