NASA will launch the Osiris-Rex spacecraft next month to research about asteroids and the components they carry. It is believed that asteroids brought to Earth the elements that created life, and the agency is determined to look into it. This is the first robotic mission sent to collect dust from an asteroid. A Solo cup peculiarly inspired the mechanics that will make possible the collection of samples.

The Osiris-Rex –Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer– will send a spacecraft to travel to Bennu, an asteroid that passes near Earth. The mission will collect dust from Bennu to determine how carbon and ice landed on our planet, revealing the origins of life on Earth. The samples could be more than 4.5 billion years old, which back to the very dawn of our solar system, said Dante Lauretta, Osiris-Rex principal investigator with the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Solar arrays raised into a “Y-wing” configuration prior to arm contact. Image Credit: Wikipedia

The mission will leave Earth on September 8 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, reports. The $800 million Nasa mission, which includes the4,600-pound spaceship, is expected to return with the samples in 2023. The trip to Bennu will take two years.

Once the spacecraft lands in the asteroid, NASA’s technology will begin its mission and start collecting the ancient dust that could explain how life began on our planet.

Scientist on Earth have samples of asteroid dust, but they cannot be properly examined. The Goddard Space Flight Center lab has work with samples of meteorites that hit our planet. Unfortunately, they were contaminated and useless to give a trustworthy answer. If Osiris-Rex returns safely home, the samples will go to Maryland to be studied.

Osiris-Rex mission: how to collect asteroid dust without destroying the spacecraft trying. A Solo cup was the answer

Rich Kuhns, who is Osiris-Rex program manager, stated that over the past ten years, a long way has come since an engineer started experimenting with a Solo cup in his driveway.

One of the challenges to collect 4.5 billion-year-old dust is not landing on the asteroid but getting close enough to gather dust samples for several seconds. But with zero gravity, there was a significant risk that the spacecraft could scatter dust, instead of collecting it, says.

Luckily, NASA has the best minds working to discover how to overcome this obstacle. Jim Harris, an engineer, started practicing for this mission years ago. It all began in his driveway and a Solo cup.

In 2019, OSIRIS-Rex will approach asteroid 1999 RQ36, or “Bennu,” and begin to map the asteroid’s surface to select a sample site. Image Credit: NASA

Harris started placing the Solo cup with the rim facing down on the ground. The cup was pierced strategically so Harris could use an air compressor to blow through the cup’s holes. The experiment managed to collect the dirt spewed out through the base of the cup into an external container, resulting in the system that will be used in Osiris-Rex.

Harris first wanted to call its creation Muucav, which is vacuum spelled backward. But in the end, it was named TAGSAM, an acronym for the Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism.

Osiris-Rex chose Bennu from all asteroids because its size is the proper one for the spacecraft mission and it has been proved that it contains carbon-rich dust, said Christina Richey, Osiris-Rex deputy program scientist at NASA.
Bennu is taller than the Eiffel Tower and passes by Earth every six years.