The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has launched its first mission to take samples from an asteroid and return them to Earth, in what it could be a pivotal step for several companies currently planning to tap into the still uncertain space mining business.
The $1 billion spacecraft, called OSIRIS-REx, blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Thursday evening aboard an Atlas V rocket. It now begins a two-year journey to the asteroid Bennu, from which it would try gathering around 60 grams of dust, soil and rubble and return it to Earth.
Asteroids like Bennu are considered residues from the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists suspect those celestial bodies may have been a source of the water and organic molecules for the early Earth and other planetary bodies.
“An uncontaminated asteroid sample from a known source would enable precise analyses, providing results far beyond what can be achieved by spacecraft-based instruments or by studying meteorites,” NASA said in a statement.
Once OSIRIS-REx arrives at Bennu in 2018, it will spend a couple of years surveying the asteroid’s body using its five instruments — three spectrometers, a camera suite and a laser altimeter — to select a suitable site for sampling.
The craft will then carefully approach the celestial body — though it will never actually land on it — and extend a 3.3 m arm that will fire nitrogen gas at the surface. This jet will break off samples to be collected and returned to Earth in 2023.
Geologists believe asteroids are packed with iron ore, nickel and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth, making up a market valued in the trillions of dollars.
Not only private companies are planning to mine celestial bodies. Governments have joined the race too — US President Barack Obama signed a law in November granting American citizens rights to own resources mined in space. Shortly after, Luxembourg signed a deal with two US space research companies, in an effort to become a global centre for asteroid mining.