CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- A rocket carrying a spacecraft built at Lockheed Martin successfully launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida Thursday.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft for NASA launched at around 5:05 p.m. (MDT) to begin a seven-year mission to collect a sample from asteroid Bennu. Samples from the asteroid will provide new insight into the history of our solar system.
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"We are honored to be chosen by NASA to launch this historic mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services. “Thank you to our NASA customer and mission partners for the outstanding teamwork and attention to detail as we successfully started OSIRIS-Rex on its seven-year journey to Bennu.”
The carbon-rich asteroid could also provide clues about the beginning of life on Earth.
"Primitive asteroids have not significantly changed since they formed nearly 4.5 billion years ago," Lockheed Martin experts said. "Because of this, we hope to find organic molecules on Bennu like those that may have led to the origin of life on Earth."
"On planets like Earth, the original materials have been altered by geologic activity," researchers said. "Bennu is like a time capsule where all the chemistry, including possible organic particles, is relatively unaltered."
The OSIRIS-REx is about 3 meters across. The asteroid is about 500 meters in diameter.
Bennu orbits the Sun and comes very close to Earth every six years.
In fact, Bennu has a "high probability" of impacting Earth in the late 22nd century, researchers said.
Knowing its composition could help plan future missions to deflect it.
If Bennu hit Earth it would be a 3,000-megaton explosion - like hundreds of nuclear weapons going off in one place at the same time, project engineers said.
OSIRIS-REx is expected to arrive at Bennu in 2018.
It will fly around the asteroid for about a year, taking photos of the surface and studying its composition. Previous studies of Bennu show it is not solid rock but a loose collection of boulders, rock and dust.
The sample capsule should return to Earth and land in a remote part of Utah in late 2023.