OSIRIS-REx reaches Florida ahead of near-Earth asteroid mission

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OSIRIS REx is undergoing final preflight tests for its asteroid sampling mission(Credit: Lockheed Martin)

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NASA's OSIRIS-REx deep-space probe has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in anticipation of its September launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket. Now undergoing final processing before launch vehicle assembly, the unmanned craft was carted 1,600 mi (2,575 km) from Lockheed Martin's Denver facility and will fly an additional 509 million mi (819 million km) to rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu and return samples of its surface to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx, which is short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, was flown from Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado to Kennedy in an environmentally-controlled container aboard a US Air Force transport aircraft along with 30 support personnel. They will help as NASA carries out final tests of the solar array, electrical, propulsion, and other systems, as well as determining the probe's overall space-worthiness.

The 1,980-lb (900-kg) OSIRIS-REx is designed to rendezvous with the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018. Bennu is one of only five B-type asteroids that is of suitable size and orbit for rendezvous and sample return. It's also one of the most likely asteroids to hit Earth in the next few centuries, so taking a close look has an element of self-interest. Another point of interest is that it's a carbonaceous asteroid that may provide insights into the origins of the Solar System as well as the source of water and organic molecules on Earth.

Once it reaches Bennu, OSIRIS-REx will spend a year examining the asteroid, including a detailed study of its chemistry, mineralogy, and topography. It will also compare telescope-based data with on-the-spot observations and make a precise determination of the asteroid's orbit. It will then touch the asteroid with a telescopic probe, which will use a blast of compressed nitrogen gas to blow a 2-oz (60 g) dust sample into a collection filter before returning to Earth in 2023. The sample will make a landing using a Sample Return Capsule of the same design as that used for returning comet samples on previous missions.

"Delivering OSIRIS-REx to the launch site marks an important milestone, one that's been many years in the making," says Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. "The spacecraft has undergone a rigorous environmental test program in Denver but we still have plenty of work ahead of us. Many on our team have temporarily moved to Florida so they can continue final processing and have the spacecraft ready for launch in three and a half months."

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