Remember when scientists and philosophers said we were not on the threshold of God’s creation?
That was then. On Friday night, NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its journey to the dusty, dangerous orbit of an asteroid the size of New York’s Central Park. This is the agency’s first asteroid sample-return mission, so it’s also the first mission to survive the lengthy and technical journey from planet Earth to an asteroid.
“Only the most precise instruments could avoid running out of fuel long before arriving at the asteroid,” NASA tweeted.
Officials watched the Antares rocket lift off from launchpad 30 – named after Lyndon Johnson, the former president who signed the bill authorising the mission – around 6:58 p.m. ET.
Venus Williams watches as the Osiris-Rex spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photograph: Bryan Thomas/EPA
While cruising higher, the probe will attempt to burn up in the atmosphere and sink to the surface of the small asteroid Bennu, about 80m in diameter. Once that happens, Osiris-Rex will get as close as 3.8m from the asteroid’s surface, and then remain within 1.2m of it for its return mission, scheduled for 2023. (The spacecraft will not actually get close enough to impact the asteroid because the rotation of the asteroid would make such a collision impossible.)
Once on the surface, Osiris-Rex will separate from the rocket and shoot a laser, sending a particle toward Bennu at around 3000 miles per hour, ultimately scattering a ring of debris known as the impactic field. If the probe survives the ordeal, it will send back hundreds of tiny samples of dust collected from Bennu’s surface. The plan is for NASA to analyze the material to find out more about how these extraterrestrial bodies formed, and what they might contain about our beginnings as a species.
“This mission will return us to the origin of the solar system,” said Bill Nye, the science educator and TV personality, who confirmed the launch of Osiris-Rex on Twitter. Nye joined space agency officials and scientists at a press conference on the day of the launch.
The Osiris-Rex launch was one of three spacecrafts launched on Friday.
NASA and its international partners – the European Space Agency, Japan’s JAXA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos – will launch the Parker Solar Probe on Friday night, delivering it into the Sun’s outer atmosphere to try to probe the speed and behavior of the solar wind. The probe will spend 7 years cruising across the Sun’s disk, gathering unprecedented amounts of data. The spacecraft will gather data such as the speed of the solar wind and detect changes in the solar magnetic field. NASA officials expect it to return to Earth in the fall of 2023, but it could even land on an asteroid.
The Parker Solar Probe is named after Eugene Parker, a solar physicist and “father of solar wind theory”.