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Sci-Tech

NASA is weeks away from launching an asteroid-thumping spacecraft

The Osiris-Rex will set off in September to high-five and sample an asteroid while helping to figure out how to keep space rocks from slamming us in the future.

NASA hopes to launch a spacecraft next month that will essentially chest-bump an asteroid and swipe a sample of space rock to bring back to Earth for study in the process.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft is about the size of a small bus when its solar arrays are deployed. Right now, the plan is to launch it from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on an Atlas V 411 rocket as soon as September 8 at 7:05 p.m. ET. It's scheduled to reach the potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu at some point in 2018.

The craft's epic acronym name stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security - Regolith Explorer, which explains what NASA hopes it will do. Those goals include returning and analyzing a sample, mapping the asteroid and its chemical and mineral makeup and taking a close look at the outermost layer, called regolith.

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Osiris-Rex will travel to near-Earth asteroid Bennu on a sample return mission.

NASA

The security aspect involves measuring the effect of sunlight on the orbit of a small asteroid (called the Yarkovsky effect) to see if it might yield any useful information for gently nudging possibly dangerous asteroids in a way that might prevent a collision with Earth.

Over the course of about five years between 2018 and 2023, the plan is for the spacecraft to arrive at Bennu and take a close look at it without touching it just yet, then orbit and map it before approaching and contacting the asteroid for just about five seconds to take a sample of around 60 grams that will then be brought back to Earth for study.

"(This mission) is going to help us understand how the solar system works...how it formed," Jeff Grossman, NASA Osiris-Rex program scientist, said during a press briefing on Wednesday.

The spacecraft will carry five instruments to explore Bennu and hopefully unlock some of the secrets of the origins of our corner of the universe, including cameras, a laser altimeter and spectrometers that will analyze the asteroid in the visible, infrared and X-ray spectra.

"This is a space rock that's primitive...it's carbon rich, so we know there's potential for organic molecules to be there," Christina Richey, NASA Osiris-Rex deputy program scientist, added during the briefing.

Hmm, bringing potential space bugs from an asteroid back to Earth...wasn't there something on the "X-Files" about that?