Pluto with New Horizons. Jupiter with Juno. And soon, asteroid Bennu with OSIRIS-REx. The third mission of the New Frontiers program launched yesterday, and it was perfect. An Atlas V rocket thundered into the skies above Cape Canaveral at 7:05 pm ET yesterday evening carrying the third New Frontiers spacecraft on the first leg of its mission. Watch the launch below.

NASA’s chief scientist Ellen Stofan was understandably excited. “Tonight is a night for celebration, we are on the way to an asteroid,” said Stofan. “We’re going to be answering some of the most fundamental questions that NASA works on.”

Nearly one hour after launch, OSIRIS-REx bid farewell to the second stage rocket that helped get it to space. It’s now flying free.

What’s next for asteroid sampling spacecraft?

It’s not heading straight for Bennu right away. OSIRIS-REx will orbit the sun for a year before swinging back by Earth for a gravity assists to reach Bennu.

In August 2018, OSIRIS-REx will finally reach Bennu and begin orbiting. Once there, the spacecraft will hang out for two years surveying the nearly 500-meter diameter asteroid. During this two-year survey, it will map potential sample sites before the team back on Earth decides on a final site.

The most exciting part of OSIRIS-REx’s mission beings once the final sampling site is selected. In July 2020, a sampling arm will be used to gather pieces of Bennu. But it will need to be quick. The sampling arm will make contact with the asteroid’s surface for just five seconds. Quick bursts of nitrogen gas will be released to stir rocks and surface material into the sampler’s head. OSIRIS-REx has enough nitrogen gas for three sampling attempts. The team back on Earth hope to collect anywhere between 60 and 200- grams of material.

Will we see incredible images like the ones from New Horizons and Juno?

I had the same question. I took a peek at NASA’s OSIRIS-REx factsheet and found the spacecraft is equipped with three cameras: MapCam, PolyCam and SamCam.

MapCam main job is to map the surface of Bennu in four colors. Sounds cool, but it probably won’t be the camera delivering jaw-dropping images.

That job goes to PolyCam. It’s an 8-inch telescope that will take the first images of Bennu from 1.24 million miles away. And it will also take high-resolution, microscope-like images of the surface. PolyCam images will be the ones that blow us away.

Finally, there’s SamCam. This camera is designed specifically to take images of the sampling event. SamCam images will tell the OSIRIS-REx team back on Earth if the sampling event was a success.

If everything goes smoothly, OSIRIS-REx will be heading back to Earth in March 2021. Two years later, the sample return capsule will separate from OSIRIS-REx and land at the Utah Test and Training Range.

NASA’s New Frontiers program has been amazing to watch. New Horizons blew me away with stunning pictures of Pluto. And Juno is doing the same with Jupiter. What secrets and awesome images await OSIRIS-REx when it reaches Bennu?

When I’m not playing Rocket League (best game ever), you can find me writing about all things games, space and more. You can reach me at alex@newsledge.com

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