NASA announced plans on Wednesday to send a robotic explorer to bring a piece of asteroid back to Earth.
The mission, called the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer or OSIRIS-REx, will cost about $1.8 billion, the space agency said. While it's a first for the United States, the Japanese Space Agency was first to sample an asteroid in 2003, with Hayabusa. That mission brought back tiny bits of the asteroid Itakawa.
The U.S. mission aims to grab as much as 2 kilograms from a meteorite called 1999 RQ36, which scientists believe may be rich in organic materials like amino acids that may have seeded the Earth 4.5 billion years ago.
“The big difference is that we are going to something rich in organics,” Michael Drake of the University of Arizona, principal investigator for the mission, told reporters. "We are bringing back what we believe is the type of material that led to the building blocks of life, that led to us."
The asteroid crosses Earth's orbit every September and has a 1-in-1,800 chance of hitting the Earth in the year 2182, the NASA-led team said. OSIRIS-REx will puff the material off the surface of the asteroid with a "kiss" of nitrogen, the scientists said.
President Obama has pressed NASA to support more missions like this one instead of dramatic, but expensive and dangerous missions using live astronauts. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Gene Cernan complained about the policy on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, NASA announced its plans for a vehicle to use to take astronauts into space. The space shuttle, which flies its last mission in July, will not be replaced and U.S. astronauts will hitch rides on Russian missions.
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