NASA reported that the OSIRIS-REx probe lifted off on top of an Atlas V launch vehicle in the early evening of September 8, 2016, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The probe is currently embarked on its way on a nearly two-year voyage to the asteroid Bennu. Once arrived, in August 2018, OSIRIS-REx will orbit the asteroid for two years. At the end of this period, it will touch down on Bennu and take a two-ounce soil sample.

OSIRIS-REx will then head back to Earth and deliver the sample in September 2023 where it will be studied at NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston, where the original moon rocks were taken decades ago.

Bennu is an Earth-approaching asteroid with a mean diameter of 492 meters. It is thought to be made up partly of carbon material that scientists believe is the building blocks of life. The asteroid also has a 1 in 2700 chance of hitting the Earth sometime in the 22nd Century.

The reason scientists are so keen to study asteroids like Bennu is that they believe that bodies like it delivered water and the building blocks of life billions of years ago as they bombarded the young Earth. By examining Bennu at length and then providing a soil sample, OSIRIS-REx will give scientists extensive data that will assist in understanding how life first arose on Earth during the early era of the formation of the solar system.

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Not coincidentally, would-be asteroid miners will be following the mission of OSIRIS-REx with keen interest. New companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries plan to send robots to Earth-approaching asteroids, prospect them for useful materials, and eventually mine them. The NASA probe will be performing many of the functions of these future asteroid mining probes.

The launch was picture perfect, proceeding without a hitch, taking place just over a week after the disaster that destroyed a SpaceX Falcon 9, its payload, and much of nearby launch pad.

Some minutes later, the Atlas V Centaur stage fired its engine and sent OSIRIS-REx on its way to Bennu. The probes solar panels subsequently deployed and it began to send back telemetry to Earth.  

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