NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be etched into a microchip aboard an asteroid-bound spacecraft. The spacecraft, named OSIRIS-REx, is scheduled to launch in 2016, orbit the asteroid in 2018 and become the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth in 2023.
The asteroid, named Bennu, is a near-Earth object that's approximately 1,760 feet in diameter. It completes an orbit of the sun every 436 days. This orbit takes it close to Earth every six years. NASA has classified Bennu as a "potentially hazardous asteroid," and some scientists give it a 1 in 1,800 chance of hitting Earth in 2182. One goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission will be to refine our current calculations of the asteroid's orbit so scientists have a better understanding of its orbit and its intersection with Earth's orbit.
After intercepting Bennu in 2018, the spacecraft's cameras and instruments will spend two years imaging and mapping the asteroid in visible wavelengths through far-infrared wavelengths to figure out its basic chemical and mineralogical composition.
Scientists hope this information will give them a better understanding of the composition of the very early solar system, the source of organic materials and water that made life possible on Earth. This information will also help the mission team select a site for the spacecraft to scoop up surface samples.
OSIRIS-REx will not land on the asteroid when it captures surface samples.
Instead, the spacecraft will approach the surface at 0.2 mph and, without landing, stretch out its robot arm to collect more than two ounces of material that will be stirred up on the surface when the spacecraft vents ultra-pure nitrogen.
To submit your name for a trip into space aboard the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, go to www.planetary.org/get-involved/messages/bennu.