A New Journey Gets Under Way

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A NASA planetary science community that has been reeling of late from budget-reality shock — no new flagship-class probes for the foreseeable future and scaled-back involvement in a joint Mars exploration program with Europe — finally has something to cheer about: the start of work on a mission to return samples from an asteroid.

NASA in late May announced the selection of OSIRIS-Rex — short for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security Regolith Explorer — as the next in its New Frontiers series of medium-class planetary probes. Assuming all goes well with program funding and development, OSIRIS-Rex will launch in 2016 toward the asteroid 1999 RQ36, arrive after a three-year journey and return samples in 2023.

While this will not be the first asteroid sample-return mission — Japan’s Hayabusa probe earned that distinction a year ago — OSIRIS-Rex’s target asteroid is highly intriguing to scientists because it appears to contain an abundance of carbon-based material. In other words, it has the elemental building block of life as we know it.

There can be little doubt that OSIRIS-Rex is a very ambitious and challenging undertaking; NASA will be relying on technology and procedures developed for the successful Stardust comet sample return to pull it off. The mission carries a substantial price tag — $800 million, not including launch.

It’s not quite as ambitious or sexy as sending a probe to Europa, Jupiter’s ice-covered moon that has long captured the imagination of scientists and dreamers. But assuming strong project management and a bit of good luck, it is an example of the great journeys of discovery that are possible even in today’s austere budgetary environment. NASA may still be a long way from finding life on other worlds, but as OSIRIS-Rex already shows, life still resides within the agency’s planetary science program.