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NASA gets go-ahead to build spacecraft for asteroid mission

NASA has been given the go-ahead to begin building spacecraft, flight instruments, and launch support facilities that will conduct the world’s first U.S. mission to collect samples from an asteroid in 2018.

The Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) received the clearance from Mission Critical Design Review (CDR) on Wednesday. CDR is a board comprised of experts from NASA and several external organizations.  The review was held at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Littleton, Colo., April 1-9.

“Successfully passing mission CDR is a major accomplishment, but the hard part is still in front of us — building, integrating and testing the flight system in support of a tight planetary launch window,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2016. It will then rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu in 2018 and return to Earth with a sample of the asteroid in 2023. Dante Lauretta from the University of Arizona is the mission’s principal investigator.

The reconnaissance mission will last a little more than a year, during which time the spacecraft will collect at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of samples to return to Earth for scientists to study.

A key objective of the mission is to search for answers to basic questions regarding the composition of the early solar system and the source of organic materials and water that made life possible. NASA also hopes the mission will aid and support the agency’s asteroid initiative that aims to understand potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. Asteroids are a major focus in space exploration lately, and the initiative brings together the best of NASA’s science, technology and human exploration efforts to achieve president Barack Obama’s goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025.

“The OSIRIS-REx team has consistently demonstrated its ability to present a comprehensive mission design that meets all requirements within the resources provided by NASA,” said Lauretta. “Mission CDR was no exception. This is a great team. I know we will build a flight and ground system that is up to the challenges of this ambitious mission.”

NASA’s plan for this ambitious mission includes six months of comprehensive surface mapping of the asteroid, as well as a robotic arm that will be used to pluck the samples. Now that the review is over, NASA can focus on actualizing this plan.

“This is the final step for a NASA mission to go from paper to product,” said Gordon Johnston, OSIRIS-REx program executive at NASA headquarters. “This confirms that the final design is ready to start the build-up towards launch.”