OSIRIS-Rex Asteroid Mission Seeks to Search for Origin of Life Chemistry

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft is rolled out to pad 40 for launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – OSIRIS-Rex, NASA’s first mission to retrieve and return samples of “pristine materials” from the surface of an asteroid and return them to Earth for high powered analysis by the world’s most advanced science instruments is encapsulated in the nose cone that’s bolted atop its Atlas rocket that has just been rolled out to its Earth departure launch pad.

It’s a groundbreaking mission that could inform us about astrobiology and yield significant clues to help determine the ‘Origin of Life’ on Earth.

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on September 8 at 7:05 p.m. EDT.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and OSIRIS-REx spacecraft were moved about 1800 feet from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) – where the rocket is assembled- to launch pad 41 starting at about 9 a.m. this morning September 7, 2018.

Watch this Atlas V rocket roll video:

The ULA, NASA and science team conducted a launch readiness review yesterday and gave the GO for launch with all systems passing the stringent rocket and safety review. The even search for signs of any debris from last week’s SpaceX Falcon 9 explosion at the adjacent pad 40 located about a mile south. No signs of any debris or damage were found at pad 40 or the rocket and spacecraft.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft is rolled out to pad 40 for launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/

The weather forecast is currently 80% GO for favorable conditions. The only concern is for cumulus clouds.

There are 3 opportunities in a row to launch OSIRIS-Rex.

In case of a delay 24 or 48 hour delay, the forecast drops only slightly to 70% GO.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft, return capsule and payload fairings inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is being processed for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/

OSIRIS-REx goal is to fly on a roundtrip seven-year journey of some 4.5 billion miles to the near-Earth asteroid target named Bennu and back.

Watch this mission video:

Video Caption: This video describes the seven-year journey of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission from launch and cruising through space to asteroid Bennu and back. The probe will study Bennu, grab a 2 ounce or more sample from the surface and bring it back to Earth for lab study by researchers. Credit: Lockheed Martin/NASA

101955 Bennu is a near Earth asteroid discovered in 1999. It was selected specifically because it is a carbon-rich asteroid.

While orbiting Bennu starting in 2018 it will move in close and snatch pristine soil samples containing organic materials from the surface using the TAGSAM collection dish, and bring them back to Earth for study by researchers using all of the most sophisticated science instruments available to humankind.

The asteroid is 1,614-foot (500 m) in diameter and crosses Earth’s orbit around the sun every six years.

“The primary objective of the OSIRIS-Rex mission is to bring back pristine material from the surface of the carbonaceous asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta told Universe Today in the PHSF, as the probe was undergoing final preparation for shipment to the launch pad.

“It records the very first material that formed from the earliest stages of solar system formation. And we are really interested in the evolution of carbon during that phase. Particularly the key prebiotic molecules like amino acids, nucleic acids, phosphates and sugars that build up. These are basically the biomolecules for all of life.”

Artist’s conception of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample return spacecraft collecting regolith samples at asteroid Bennu. Credits: NASA/Lockheed Martin

OSIRIS-REx will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023. It has the capacity to scoop up to about 1 kg or more.

The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began. It will also improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth by measuring the Yarkovsky effect.
I asked Lauretta to explain in more detail why was Bennu selected as the target to answer fundamental questions related to the origin of life ?

“We selected asteroid Bennu as the target for this mission because we feel it has the best chance of containing those pristine organic compounds from the early stage of solar system formation,” Lauretta told me.

And that information is based on our ground based spectral characterization using telescopes here on Earth. Also, space based assets like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.
What is known about the presence of nitrogen containing compounds like amino acids and other elements on Bennu that are the building blocks of life?

“When we look at the compounds that make up these organic materials in these primitive asteroidal materials, we see a lot of carbon,” Lauretta explained.

“But we also see nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur and phosphorous. We call those the CHONPS. Those are the six elements we really focus on when we look at astrobiology and prebiotic chemistry and how those got into the origin of life.”

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was built for NASA by prime contractor Lockheed Martin at their facility near Denver, Colorado and flown to the Kennedy Space Center on May 20.

It will map the chemistry and mineralogy of the primitive carbonaceous asteroid. The team will initially select about 10 target areas for further scrutiny as the sampling target. This will be whittled down to two, a primary and backup, Enos told me.

After analyzing the data returned, the science team then will select a site where the spacecraft’s robotic sampling arm will grab a sample of regolith and rocks. The regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system.

Engineers will command the spacecraft to gradually move on closer to the chosen sample site, and then extend the arm to snatch the pristine samples with the TAGSAM sample return arm.

PI Lauretta will make the final decision on when and which site to grab the sample from.

“As the Principal Investigator for the mission I have responsibility for all of the key decisions during our operations,” Lauretta replied. “So we will be deciding on where we want to target our high resolution investigations for sample site evaluation. And ultimately what is the one location we want to send the spacecraft down to the surface of the asteroid to and collect that sample.”

“And then we have to decide like if we collected enough sample and are we ready to stow it in the sample return capsule. Or are we going to use one of our 2 contingency bottles of gas to go for a second attempt.”

“The primary objective is one successful sampling event. So when we collect 60 grams or 2 ounces of sample then we are done!”

“In the event that we decide to collect more, it will be intermixed with anything we collected on the first attempt.”

The priceless sample will then be stowed in the on board sample return capsule for the long journey back to Earth.

Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, little altered over time.

After a 7 year journey to asteroid Bennu and back, NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex sample return capsule will land by parachute in the Utah desert on Sept. 24, 2023. Credits: NASA/Lockheed Martin

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.
OSIRIS-REx will return the largest sample from space since the American and Soviet Union’s moon landing missions of the 1970s.

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, enclosed in a payload fairing, is lifted Aug. 29, 2016 at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that is to lift OSIRIS-REx into space was stacked at SLC-41 so the spacecraft and fairing could be hoisted up and bolted to the rocket. Photo credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.

Watch for Ken’s continuing OSIRIS-REx mission and launch reporting from on site at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Ait Force Station, FL.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer


Learn more about OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Sep 7-9: “OSIRIS-REx lainch, SpaceX missions/launches to ISS on CRS-9, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Dr Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Dr. Ken Kremer, Universe Today point to NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 20, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC,, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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