Nasa will start building its first spacecraft to land and collect samples from an asteroid after the OSIRIS-REx project passed a major review.
Engineers from Nasa and other institutions evaluating the proposed design of the spacecraft, its flight instruments, ground systems and launch support facilities concluded the project is ready to move from paper to construction to aim for a 2016 launch date.
"Successfully passing mission Critical Design Review 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.
The $800m (£480m) OSIRIS-Rex mission is Nasa’s first attempt to return a physical sample from an asteroid to Earth, which is currently scheduled for 2023. Its target is the 493-m in diameter 101955 Bennu asteroid, which is on the list of potential Earth impactors.
The spacecraft, to be built by Lockheed Martin, will carry five instruments for remote sensing and reconnaissance. After landing on Bennu's surface after a two-year journey through space, the spacecraft will spend one year scanning the asteroid before collecting a sample. It will attempt to return some 60 grams of soil to Earth for scientists to study.
“This is a pioneering effort, both technologically and scientifically," lead scientist Dante Lauretta, with the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement.
Scientists hope the samples would allow them to gain more insight into the evolution of the Solar System as the chemical composition of asteroids is believed not to have changed considerably over millions of years due to the lack of geological processes. Asteroids crashing into the Earth in the early phases of the planet’s evolution are also believed to have brought organic components that eventually enabled the creation of life – something the researchers are eager to confirm.
In January, Nasa invited people from around the world to submit their names to be etched on a microchip aboard the spacecraft. After submitting their name, participants are able to download and print a certificate documenting their participation in the OSIRIS-REx mission.
The spacecraft will be launched aboard an Atlas 5 rocket by United Launch Services in September 2013. Nasa already signed a $183.5m contract with the launch provider.