Updated at 10:05 p.m. Eastern.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — An Atlas 5 successfully launched a NASA mission to visit a near Earth asteroid and return samples of it to Earth Sept. 8.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 411 lifted off at 7:05 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. No significant problems were reported during the countdown, and weather remained favorable throughout the day leading up to launch.
The Atlas 5 launched NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, spacecraft. The spacecraft separated from the Atlas nearly one hour after liftoff.
“This was an excellent launch,” said Tim Dunn, NASA launch manager, after spacecraft separation. “Not a single anomaly was worked during the countdown. That’s almost unheard of.”
Initial operations of the spacecraft, including deployment of its solar arrays and initial communications with NASA’s Deep Space Network, also went as planned. “The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is happy and healthy,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager for Lockheed Martin, at a post-launch press conference. “It is working absolutely as we designed it.”
OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program of medium-sized planetary missions, with an estimated cost of $800 million plus launch and operations. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft using hardware designs derived from a number of previous planetary missions.
The spacecraft will travel to Bennu, a near Earth asteroid about 500 meters in diameter, arriving there in in August 2018. The spacecraft will study the asteroid for nearly two years before making brief contact with the asteroid’s surface to collect samples of dust and rock.
A collection device, known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), will use puffs of nitrogen gas to agitate the surface, collecting material in filters. TAGSAM is designed to collect at least 60 grams of material, but project officials are confident it can collect much more, perhaps up to 2 kilograms.
The spacecraft will deposit the samples collected by TAGSAM into a sample return canister based on the same design used for the Stardust comet dust sample return mission. Collection of the sample will mark the end of the science phase of the mission as the spacecraft moves to a safe distance from the asteroid.
“It’s all about keeping that precious sample safe, doing nothing that can possibly jeopardize it,” said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, at a Sept. 6 briefing.
OSIRIS-REx will depart from Bennu in March 2021 and return to Earth two and ahalf years later. The sample return canister will parachute to a landing in the Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24, 2023.
Dante Lauretta, the University of Arizona planetary scientist who is the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx, said at a pre-launch press conference Sept. 6 that he was eager to get the mission started, having worked on the concept for more than a decade. “I am anxious, because I’ve been working on this program for 12 years now and I really want to fly this spacecraft,” he said.
After the launch, he felt relieved. “We hit all of our milestones within seconds,” he said at a post-launch press conference. “We really kicked that field goal right down the center.”
The launch is a highlight in a busy year for NASA’s New Frontiers program. On July 4, the second New Frontiers mission, Juno, entered orbit around Jupiter nearly five years after launch. Juno completed its first orbit around Jupiter Aug. 27 and will enter its primary science orbit in October.
A few days before Juno’s arrival, NASA formally extended the mission for New Horizons, the first New Frontiers mission, which flew past the dwarf planet Pluto in July 2015. The mission extension will allow New Horizons to fly past a small body in the distant Kuiper Belt in January 2019.
NASA is also preparing for the competition for the fourth New Frontiers mission. NASA issued a draft announcement of opportunity for the competition in August for comment, and plans to issue the final announcement in January 2017. NASA expects to select a mission in May 2019 for launch in 2024 or 2025.