NASA probe will fly to an asteroid, bring back a sample

Last Updated Aug 2, 2016 8:21 AM EDT

NASA is planning something of a real-life sequel to Bruce Willis' blockbuster "Armageddon" -- minus the nuclear explosion. Next month, it will launch a probe on a mission to a near-Earth asteroid.

The OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security -- Regolith Explorer) mission will be the first U.S. space flight that aims to collect asteroid samples and bring them back to Earth. It will take the probe a full two years before it reaches Bennu, the target asteroid.

"What scientists hope to accomplish with this mission is learn about early history of solar system. There's a small number of asteroids that satisfy a list of criteria that make it excellent to explore," Derrick Pitts, the chief astronomer and planetarium director for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, told CBS News.

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on September 8. It will orbit the sun for its first year in space. It will then use Earth's gravitational field to help propel it on its way to Bennu. Two months after slowing down to encounter the asteroid, the probe will survey and map potential sample spots, before briefly dropping down to take a sample, NASA said.

The visit will be short and sweet -- OSIRIS-REx will stay on the asteroid's surface for a mere five seconds, and won't return to Earth until 2023, Pitts explained. While it might seem like a somewhat roundabout route to collect a sample of space dust, Pitts said the mission will be instrumental in better understanding the history of Earth and the solar system at large.

Does this asteroid pose a threat to our planet, as in "Armageddon"? Pitts said that Bennu has an estimated one in 2,700 chance of colliding with Earth some time in the 22nd century. Though the odds are relatively low, if it did collide, it would cause quite an impact -- but not an existential threat.

"We're not talking about an asteroid that could destroy the Earth," OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, told Space.com. "We're not anywhere near that kind of energy for an impact."

What should Earthlings do to prepare?

"I say we send Bruce Willis for sure, but don't send a nuclear warhead," Pitts joked. "If you try to blow it up, what it does is create a field of smaller objects traveling at the same velocity heading towards us."

On a more serious note, Pitts said that researching nearby objects like Bennu hold a key to understanding our origins.

"This research into what these objects are and where they are is very important," he said.

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