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Asteroid sampling mission to launch on Atlas 5 rocket

Posted: August 5, 2013

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket flying in its unique configuration with a single strap-on solid booster mounted to the first stage has been selected to send a NASA spacecraft to rendezvous with an asteroid and return samples to Earth.

The first Atlas 5-411 rocket launched in 2006. Credit: Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now
The Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is scheduled for launch in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Known as the 411 version of the Atlas 5, the launcher will feature one solid rocket booster, the kerosene-fueled main stage, a cryogenic Centaur upper stage and a four-meter-diameter nose cone.

The configuration has flown three times to date, all successfully, since 2006, deploying a commercial European TV satellite and a pair of classified National Reconnaissance Office missions.

The Atlas design allows planners to tailor the rocket to exact needs of a payload, adding solid motors for greater liftoff power and various nose cone sizes to enclose the cargo.

"With 39 successful missions spanning a decade of operational service, the commercially developed Atlas 5 is uniquely qualified to provide launch services for these high-value NASA New Frontier Missions," said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president of Atlas and Delta Programs. "Atlas 5 is currently the only launch vehicle certified by NASA to fly the nation's most complex exploration missions."

Atlas 5 launched for NASA nine times, including two payloads earlier this year -- the TDRS K communications satellite and the new Landsat. It is slated to send the agency's MAVEN spacecraft to Mars in November and another TDRS in January.

OSIRIS-REx, equipped with high-resolution cameras, LIDAR and spectrographs, will cruise to the near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu, arriving in October 2018 for a 505-day survey to determine the massive space rock's composition, chemical makeup and the best spot for sampling.

Approaching at a pace of 3.9 inches per second, the spacecraft will extend a robotic arm to reach the asteroid's surface, capturing rocks and soil stirred up by blasting nitrogen gas at the surface in a "touch-and-go" maneuver.

The samples will be stowed in a return capsule and brought back to Earth in September 2023 for a parachute-assisted touchdown.

Asteroid 101955 Bennu orbits the sun every 1.2 years on a path that comes close to Earth every six years. Precisely measuring its orbit is seen as critical since recent calculations resulted a 1 in 1,800 chance of impact with Earth in 2182.

Samples collected by the mission will be taken to the Johnson Space Center's curation facility for world-wide distribution and scientific analysis.