When it comes to studying samples of otherworldly material, scientists on Earth are in a bit of a bind. We’ve brought rocks back from the moon, and our Mars rovers take samples, process them, and then send the data back to us, but it’s pretty difficult to gather rocks from other celestial bodies. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is about to attempt that remarkable feat not by traveling to a nearby planet, but by hitching a ride on a rock that’s actually traveling to us instead.
Later this week, the high-tech probe will catch a boost from Earth’s gravity, slinging itself around our planet to send itself straight to a large nearby asteroid called Bennu — or “101955 Bennu” to be more specific. The spacecraft, which is about the size of a modern van, will then fly towards the asteroid for another year or so before eventually inserting itself in the large rock’s orbit.
The probe will then study Bennu for a couple of years, learning as much about the rock as possible before grabbing a sample of the rocky material and heading back to its handlers here on Earth. There are a million things that can go wrong between now and then, and the mission’s groundbreaking goals will be an incredible challenge. If it succeeds it will result in the largest pure asteroid sample ever brought back to Earth, and could change what we know about asteroid formation.
This will be a particularly interesting mission to keep your eye on if you’re even casually into the science of space. It’s sure to have a few unexpected twists, but we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that the plucky probe can do everything it’s set out to do and provide us with a window into the life cycle of the asteroids that frequently visit Earth’s backyard.