Nasa spacecraft to crash into asteroid for mission to hunt water on side

Round-trip mission will make science discoveries and marks end of the space programme for Nasa’s Orion capsule

A NASA spacecraft will crash into an asteroid to survey how vulnerable the space rock could be to a catastrophic impact.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft, a joint US-French undertaking, is launching on Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and will fly with Earth on its trajectory after crashing into the asteroid Bennu.

The touchdown is not expected to occur until 2023.

Nasa’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft. Photograph: NASA/Rex/Shutterstock

Bennu is about 1,600ft in diameter (400 metres), but Osiris-Rex will have a very narrow range to turn around before it can use its parachute to deploy.

George Slefo, an asteroid geologist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, who is collaborating with Osiris-Rex, described the asteroid as “the granddaddy of all asteroids”.

The near-Earth asteroid Bennu passed about 3.2 million miles (5.6 million km) from Earth in 2004. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

It will take Osiris-Rex two years to analyse samples of the space rock’s surface and they are expected to take about half a year to return to Earth by 2025. The samples will be worth up to $700m (£589m) because Bennu is a pre-frontier space rock with rough terrain and a broad-ish interior, according to Nasa.

At a media briefing on Monday, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for Nasa’s science mission directorate, stressed Osiris-Rex’s significance.

“No one country or two countries can do this alone,” he said. “If you look at Nasa’s research program, nearly all of the research takes place under joint program agreements between the US and foreign countries. This is part of the US-Russia RRN agreement, this is part of the Lunar Roving Vehicle agreement with the Russians, part of the Osiris-Rex agreement with the French.”

“To have us do this while we’re doing a deep space transportation system that’s coming back to Earth and we’re aiming for Mars – it’s a game changer.”

Osiris-Rex will be placed in a polar orbit around Bennu, where it will spend about two years getting to know the asteroid and its atmosphere before approaching in September 2020 to set off the nosedive, where it will be too close for the more powerful solar panel to reach to defend against a hit from Earth.

In late 2023 the Osiris-Rex spacecraft will be subjected to an orbital velocity correction, about 80-100km/h (50-60mph), and will swing its craft away from the asteroid. Within a month or so it will return to Earth, landing on the surface with a small parachute.

The spacecraft is aboard Nasa’s Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California, where a telescope will then analyse its impact as it flies by the Earth some 500km (300 miles) above.

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