A Mission To An Orbiting Asteroid

By Adam Chick

September 13, 2012 Updated Sep 13, 2012 at 6:36 PM EDT

Ithaca, NY (WBNG Binghamton) Have you ever seen the movie Armageddon? The one where they fly up to an asteroid? A group of scientists are planning something kind of like that, only with robots instead of people.

Dante Lauretta is the Principle investigator on the Osiris REx asteroid sample return mission.

Thursday Lauretta was in Ithaca to share with students his mission.

A mission that he and his team has been working on for nine years.

Lauretta's mission regarding Asteroid 1999 RQ36 is simple.

"Grab a sample and bring it back to Earth," said Lauretta.

But as you might imagine actually executing that feat might be a little more complicated.

"We have a spacecraft that's basically going to be in a formation flying mode near the asteroid. We will approach it very slowly, and extend out a robotic arm which has a sample collection device at the end of it. When the device makes contact with the asteroid surface, we'll blow down high pressure gas, stir up the soil on the surface of the asteroid. And we have a large air filter essentially that captures the air and the dust and the soil that's liberated by that event," said Lauretta.

The asteroid, 1999 RQ36, was formed around the same time as our solar system, and thus contains much of the same matter and elements that was around at that time.

The scientists are thinking of it as sort of a time capsule that will tell us how our solar system was formed.

"Asteroids are the geologic remnants from four and a half billion years ago. And the record the formation of planets and the earliest history of our solar system," said Lauretta.

It's not a cheap operation, either.

There has been a staggering amount of time and money invested into this project.

"We're spending about a billion dollars of US taxpayer moneys. So we obviously have to be good stewards of that. We go through a lot of engineering design, a lot of business management, and a lot of science evaluation to make sure all of those resources come together to achieve mission objectives," said Lauretta.

The mission isn't expected to launch until 2016.

The collected sample wouldn't actually be returned to Earth until 2023.