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NASA's Spacecraft to 'Biopsy' a Nearby Asteroid

Aug 19, 2016 12:28 PM EDT

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration are all set to launch a spacecraft capable conducting a biopsy on an asteroid that presents a slim chance of colliding with Earth.

The spacecraft, dubbed as Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer or OSIRIS-Rex, is scheduled to be launched in space on September 8, 2016. The main mission of the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft is to study the asteroid Bennu and bring back samples of the carbon-rich rock back to Earth.

The mission is estimated to take seven years. OSIRIS-Rex will swing around the sun and will gradually approach the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid with the help from the Earth's gravity. It will reach Bennu by 2018 and will spend two years studying the chemical composition of the asteroid in visible, infrared and X-ray spectral bands.

Once the orbital survey is done, the spacecraft will match the rate of spin of Bennu and descent in an ideal site selected by the scientists at NASA. Using an 11-foot pole, called the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism or TAGSAM, OSIRIS-Rex will blast the surface of Bennu with pure nitrogen gas, kicking up samples of dust and rock from the surface into the collector.

According to a report from USA Today, OSIRIS-Rex needed to collect at least 2 ounces of sample, which will be studied in Earth's laboratories. By analyzing the samples from the 1,640-foot asteroid, scientists could have a better insight into the early solar system and whether the theory that asteroid served as the delivery system of molecules necessary for life is true.

Furthermore, the OSIRIS-Rex mission could also help astronomers figure out which asteroids poses an imminent threat of crashing to the Earth.

It is widely accepted that heat from the sun could provide a tiny push that can influence the movement of asteroids, known as the Yarkovsky Effect. Even with just minimal push, it can potentially build up and alter the path of asteroids.

Scientists claim that there is 1-in-2,700 chance Bennu would hit Earth about 150 years from now. However, if such event occurred, the asteroid would not totally destroy the planet. It will just devastate a local area at most and will not cause mass extinction.

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