NASA robot may find 'clues to origin of life' on near-Earth asteroid [VIDEO]

Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx at asteroid Bennu © NASA
NASA’s groundbreaking seven-year mission with OSIRIS-REx, a robotic spacecraft, is about to launch. Its goal is to huddle up next to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, where it will fire nitrogen gas and vacuum up the planetoid’s dirt and gravel for study.

The lift-off of NASA’s Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security - Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) is scheduled for Thursday night from Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

From there the spacecraft will travel for seven years covering 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) through space to reach the exotic black asteroid rock called Bennu (BEN’-oo) for map and rock sampling.

“The primary objective of the mission is to bring back 60 grams of pristine carbon-rich material from the surface of Bennu,” said principal scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona at Tucson about the $800 million mission, according to the Associated Press. “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.”

NASA said asteroids like Bennu contain natural resources such as water, organics and materials and that “future space exploration and economic development may rely on asteroids for these materials.”

After cruising for two years, OSIRIS-REx will approach the asteroid in August 2018, and by matching its velocity, will begin a year-long survey to map sample sites. Using a sampling arm, it will briefly touch the surface of Bennu for about five seconds and release a burst of nitrogen gas to stir up the surface soil for capturing dust and gravel in a sampler head.

“The spacecraft has enough nitrogen to allow three sampling attempts, to collect between 20 to 2,000 grams (2-70 ounces),”said NASA in a released statement on Monday.

OSIRIS-REx has five instruments, including cameras, for exploring Bennu using remote sensing.

The spacecraft is not due to return to Earth until 2023, and research on the samples will take place from 2023 to 2025.

"We are going out to explore an unknown world," Lauretta said. "We're going to map it in great detail. It will be the most well characterized asteroid in our solar system by the time we're through with it."

Observations from the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have already provided scientists with some data about the black rock. It is about 1,600 feet (487 meters) across, bulges at the middle and is the color of coal. The dense color indicates carbon richness. It is believed to have formed 4.5 billion years ago and could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth, and elsewhere in the solar system.

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in the agency’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is providing overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance for the spacecraft.