5 things to know about NASA's asteroid mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A 189-foot-tall Atlas V rocket is set to launch from Cape Canaveral with a spacecraft that could help unlock secrets to how life started on Earth — and possibly elsewhere.

Atlas V has a two-hour window beginning at 7:05 p.m. ET  on Thursday to launch NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, beginning a years-long mission that will target near-Earth asteroid Bennu and end in the deserts of Utah.

Here are five things you need to know:

1. Mission begins today, ends in 2023

What begins  Thursday at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41 will — if all goes according to plan — end in Utah after the spacecraft touches down in 2023. The SUV-sized OSIRIS-REx will arrive at Bennu by August 2018 and study its topography for at least several months. It will make quick contact in July 2020 and return to Earth in 2023 with at least a 2-ounce sample.

2. Bennu could hold secrets to life

The sample sucked up from the surface of Bennu is likely to hold immense scientific significance. The asteroid itself is  probably carbon-rich, according to telescope observations, and could contain organic compounds left over from the solar system’s formation more than 4.5 billion years ago.

3. OSIRIS-REx will return sample to Earth

OSIRIS-REx will have two opportunities in July 2020 to grab samples from the surface of Bennu. Two ounces is the minimum desired sample, but the container could scoop up more than  4 pounds. After the sample retrieval, OSIRIS-REx will jettison a 100-pound capsule — identical to one NASA’s Stardust mission used to bring back comet dust — that will plunge into Earth’s atmosphere at 27,000 mph.

If successful, it will be the first asteroid sample return mission for NASA.

4. Contact with Bennu will be shorter than you think.

Five seconds. That's all the spacecraft will  probably need to grab a sample from the asteroid that measures 1,650 feet across.

5. Special Atlas V 411 rocket configuration

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch OSIRIS-REx comes in a unique configuration for Thursday's launch. It includes just one solid rocket booster, which provides the precision necessary for the mission.  Thursday's mission will be the third in the 411 configuration since its first launch in April 2006.

Follow James Dean and Emre Kelly on Twitter: @flatoday_jdean and @EmreKelly


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