NASA Goddard will manage new asteroid mission

Center to get $128 million share of OSIRIS-Rex

May 25, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt will get a $128 million slice of a new mission to grab a sample from an asteroid and return it to Earth in 2023.

NASA selected the $800 million OSIRIS-Rex mission for funding Wednesday, passing over competing proposals to send spacecraft to Venus and the moon. The work will be led by Michael J. Drake at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and managed by Goddard. Engineers at the space center will also build one of its instruments.

The 3,300-pound spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2016, arriving in 2019 at an asteroid named 1999 RQ36. One third of a mile wide and circling the sun in an orbit close to Earth's, the asteroid is rich in the kind of pristine organic compounds that scientists believe may have seeded the early Earth with the building blocks of life.

Drake said he hopes to retrieve as much as 4.4 pounds of material and bring it back to Earth. "That's a huge amount of material," he said, "more than enough to do all the science we can imagine."

A Japanese mission, called Hayabusa, was launched in 2003 to the asteroid 25143 Itokawa. It retrieved a few specks of the asteroid's surface material and carried it to Earth. The sample was retrieved in June 2010 from a re-entry capsule that landed in Australia.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., hailed NASA's choice. "The men and women of Goddard have demonstrated over and over again they have the right stuff to lead the world in green science, planetary science and astronomy."

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