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NASA Launches Mission to Study Dangerous Asteroid

NASA begins mission to asteroid Bennu.

NASA begins mission to asteroid Bennu.

A NASA spacecraft is on a mission to literally scrape up some material from the surface of a potentially dangerous asteroid named Bennu and bring it back to earth to study.

The six-meter long OSIRIS-REx lifted off to space late Thursday onboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in the U.S. state of Florida.

What are we hoping to learn?

OSIRIS-REx is an acronym for, "Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security - Regolith Explorer," which is a fairly self-explanatory name for what NASA is hoping the spacecraft will accomplish. The mission will give NASA information about the origins and makeup of carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu.

Once it's out of Earth's orbit, OSIRIS-REx, will reach spend a few years in space and make contact with Bennu in 2018. Once there, the spacecraft will perform a touch-and-go maneuver on the surface to grab about 60 grams of the asteroid's surface and return a sample to Earth.

Coming home with gifts

That tiny bit of Bennu, will head back to earth in the Sample Return Capsule. The SRC will be the only part of OSIRIS-REx to make it back to earth.

The little SRC will hit our atmosphere at a speed of about 12.4 kilometers per second. Two parachutes will slow the SRC down and it should land safely in the Utah desert in September, 2023.

Another goal of the mission is to help NASA determine the threat that asteroids like Bennu might pose for us here on earth.

Bennu is no little space rock, it has a diameter taller than New York City's Empire State Building. It is traveling at more than 100,000 kilometers per hour and weighs 60 million tons. Bennu comes within 500,000 kilometers of Earth every six years or so. If it hits the planet, it could do the same amount of damage as the asteroid that almost scoured all life some 60 million years ago.

NASA says it has a reasonably high chance of bashing into us sometime in the next century. So learning all that we can about Bennu, is in our best interests.