The next NASA mission to launch is OSIRIS-REx, a solar system explorer that will land on an asteroid, collect a soil sample, and bring it back.
This mission is utterly novel in the field of solar system exploration as this will be the second time the goal of a robotic mission will be to return a sample of alien soil to Earth (or to return to Earth at all). The first sample mission, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agencies’ “Hyabusa,” managed to return to Earth with 1000s of foreign particles that were collected for study.
In fact there have been only two other missions to a small body of our solar system. In 2014 a European Space Agency mission called Rosetta landed a spacecraft on a comet.
Despite the initial mishap of the spacecraft bouncing partially into a crevasse upon impact, thereby limiting its ability to run its solar-powered instruments, this was an astounding achievement. The Rosetta mission goal was reached to document the physical characteristics of this one comet which was bound for the inner solar system. This spacecraft did not return to Earth.
OSIRIS-REx will revolutionize our ability to explore the solar system. In addition to being the engineering marvel described briefly above, the ultimate goal of this mission is to will measure the composition of the soil. You see, this asteroid formed around the same time that the solar system did. This soil will be the closest we can get literally to touching the original material that was present at the start of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
Put another way, this asteroid it thought to give a reasonably accurate inventory of the average ingredients frozen in place at the same the Earth was made. Far from being just a dry list of atomic elements and compounds, these elements and especially the amount of each element relative to the others, had a composition that formed some of the necessary ingredients that led to the emergence of life on Earth.
There was sufficient carbon to build our bones and all the plants, enough iron to form the core of the Earth and give our blood its characteristics, sufficient silicon to make the ocean’s beaches, and perhaps even water help build our oceans, and the list goes on.
This ‘symphony’ of elements did not just come out of nowhere. Rather, the soil we will study from this return mission is a result of billions of years of stars producing all these elements and then distributing the elements into space later to be collected up by our own solar system. By studying the score of this symphony of elements we can learn more about the history of the stars on whose shoulders we stand. Do keep your calendar open on the launch date of September 8th, 2016!