Dangerously plunge the alien into the hollow. Never gently touch the rocky surface of the asteroid. Suck some handful of pebbles and dust. Navigate through excavations avoiding craggy rock walls and a rock called “Mount Dome.” Then fly back to earth. This is a difficult task that NASA has assigned to OSIRIS-Rx, a small spacecraft on a multiyear coast, to collect pieces of an asteroid. This will push the limits of SUV-size scrutiny, which has already established numerous solar system records for its ambitious orbits. And it will test the capabilities of scientists to integrate complex space exercises from a million miles away.
But if OSIRIS-REx succeeds, it will collect material from the earliest days of the solar system – a material that can give clues about our beginnings and perhaps even the ingredients for life.
The selection for sampling from this challenging site was announced last week at the annual meeting of the US Geophysical Union.
“It was not an easy decision,” Lori Gleese, director of the science division on NASA’s planets, told colleagues at a NASA town hall. “But I think that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The target of OSIRIS-REx is the size of the asteroid, the bunnies, the size of the Empire State Building, and the shape of a frozen candy. Instead of sugar, it’s made of carbon-rich rock – the kind of material researchers believe is representative of the rotating gas and dust disk from which the solar system was found.
Although “carbonaceous” has been surveyed by asteroid telescopes and collected in the form of falling earthquakes, scientists have never been able to study the material closely. With OSISIS-REx, they hope, they get their first chance.