Though the European Space Agency is officially the first group to land a man-made object (a bit roughly) on a comet, NASA is prepping a similar mission of its own — and they’re taking things a step further.
Not to be outdone by the ESA’s Rosetta mission, which placed the Philae lander on Comet 67P last week, NASA is planning to launch its own similar mission in 2016 to check out the asteroid Bennu. But instead of just landing and sending back intel, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer) is aiming to land in 2018 and eventually return a sample back to Earth in 2023.
Officials believe the Bennu asteroid has been kicking around since the dawn of our solar system, and by finding out more about its makeup and what it's seen, they believe we can learn a great deal about the history of our little corner of the galaxy. Here’s how NASA’s deputy principal investigator for the project, Edward Beshore, explained the stakes:
“We are going to Bennu because we want to know what it has witnessed over the course of its evolution. Bennu’s experiences will tell us more about where our solar system came from and how it evolved. Like the detectives in a crime show episode, we'll examine bits of evidence from Bennu to understand more completely the story of the solar system, which is ultimately the story of our origin.
"On planets like Earth, the original materials have been profoundly altered by geologic activity and chemical reactions with our atmosphere and water. We think Bennu may be relatively unchanged, so this asteroid is like a time capsule for us to examine … By bringing this material back to Earth, we can do a far more thorough analysis than we can with instruments on a spacecraft, because of practical limits on the size, mass, and energy consumption of what can be flown. We will also set aside returned materials for future generations to study with instruments and capabilities we can't even imagine now.”
The folks at NASA have also put together a nifty video to explain more about the mission and what they believe the asteroid Bennu has seen over the years: