WASHINGTON — NASA on Monday launched a spacecraft to crash into an asteroid to learn more about potential threats from comets and asteroids.
The spacecraft, called Osiris-Rex, is about 5 feet wide and made of a steel frame and a carbon composite shell about six feet in diameter. It will plow through a space rock about 17 miles in diameter at about 30,000 mph to destroy some of its solar panels and close a huge gap in its orbit around the sun.
This is NASA’s first mission to a near-Earth asteroid. If everything goes well, the spacecraft will arrive at the space rock in 2016, spend two years studying the object and drop a box-like device into the asteroid’s surface containing a sample. It will be brought back to Earth in 2023. Scientists hope the sample will reveal what asteroids are made of, what their chemical makeup is and if any could strike Earth.
After the spacecraft’s two-year study, scientists hope to return a box-like container to Earth containing a sample.
The launch of Osiris-Rex is part of a smaller but equally important mission called the Centaur probe that arrives at the moon later this year. Centaur is expected to drop an American flag on the surface of the moon, as part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges for Exploration program.