NASA has a plan to better explore how our own local star system — and life within it — got started. It wants to intercept, study and sample a passing asteroid. The only thing more impressive than this mission's astronomical level of precision is how the space agency somehow shoehorned "Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer" into a functional acronym.
More easily-referred to as OSIRIS-REx, this two-part, $US800 million mission planned for a September 2016 launch is part of NASA's ongoing New Frontiers Program. The plan is to launch the probe aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket, which will then make a two year trek through the solar system to intercept asteroid 101955 Bennu. After orbiting and imaging the carbonaceous space rock for 505 days, the OSIRIS-REx will collect a sample (which could be anywhere from 60g to 2kg) of the asteroid by extending a long robotic arm rather than actually landing on the rock, and then blast a sample return capsule back to Earth. If all goes according to plan, the sample will arrive at the Utah Test and Training Range in 2023 for transport to a dedicated analysis facility set up at Johnson Space Center.
The Bennu asteroid was chosen for this mission in part because its elliptical orbit brings it quite close to the Earth every six years — so close that there's a calculated 0.071 per cent chance that it will hit the planet between 2169 and 2199 — and also because its carbon-based nature could hold vital clues as to the state of the early solar system, before the formation of the rocky planets, and how the necessary ingredients for life were distributed.
Goldstone radar-images of the asteroid
The University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems are collaborating on this precedent-setting mission. This is the first time NASA has even attempted to sample an asteroid, and could help spur interest in both public and private asteroid exploration, a field that's already bursting with opportunities. [The Register - Wiki - NASA 1, 2]