The US space agency (Nasa) has launched a mission to retrieve a rock sample from a 500m-wide asteroid called Bennu. Scientists hope the material will reveal details about the formation of the planets, and improve our knowledge of how potentially dangerous space objects move through the Solar System.

 

The probe, dubbed Osiris-Rex, blasted away from Florida on an Atlas rocket at 19:05 local time (00:05 BST). It will be seven years before it returns to Earth with its bounty. This will be delivered in a capsule that will be parachuted down to the Utah desert on 24 September 2023. 

 

It is not the first such sample-return mission - the Japanese brought back a tiny amount of dust from asteroid Itokawa in 2010. But the Americans hope to acquire considerably more material, weighing perhaps a few hundred grams. Engineers have developed a collection device that will extend from Osiris-Rex on a robotic arm and "high five" the surface of Bennu.On contact, the mechanism will deliver a burst of gas to kick up loose fragments that should then settle in a holding chamber prior to being packed away in the return capsule.

 

Photo: NASA

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