LOS ANGELES - By the year 2016, NASA hopes to send a spacecraft to an asteroid that can scoop up surface samples and bring them back to Earth.
The space agency said Wednesday that the unmanned craft won't land on the asteroid. But it will get close enough to extend a robotic arm and pluck samples from the surface. The mission is called Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-Rex, for short.
NASA plans to launch the spacecraft in 2016. It will take an estimated four years for OSIRIS-REx to approach the near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2020. When the craft gets within 3 miles of the asteroid, scientists will conduct a six month surface mapping review and then select a location where OSIRIS-REx's arm will take a sample. The craft will return to Earth about seven years later.
It won't be the first space mission in history to retrieve samples from an asteroid. That honor goes to Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft, which came back to Earth with fragments of the asteroid Itokawa to Earth in June 2010.
Pieces of asteroids known as meteorites constantly break away and make fiery plunges through Earth's atmosphere. Scientists are interested in studying them to better understand the early solar system.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden says the mission is a step toward President Barack Obama's goal to explore deep space.
The mission will cost about $1 billion.