The first U.S. mission to bring samples from an asteroid back to Earth is the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx. Scheduled for launch in September 2016, OSIRIS-REx will increase our understanding of asteroids, and it could shed new light on the origin of life on Earth.
Near-Earth asteroid (101955) 1999 RQ36 is the mission’s target. The most accessible organic-rich asteroid from the early solar system, its average diameter is approximately 1,600 feet or about the size of four football fields. Asteroids, little altered over time, contain the original material of dust and gas from the solar nebula that collapsed to form our Sun and the planets about 4.5 billion years ago, so they can tell us about the conditions at our solar system’s birth. Because this asteroid is rich in carbon, a key element in organic molecules necessary for life, it may tell us much more about the building blocks of life on our own planet.