Mission to collect chunk of asteroid

Space scientists are planning a mission to land on a menacing asteroid that could one day collide with the Earth. If approved, the Osiris probe will collect a sample of the space rock, dubbed 1999 RQ36, and bring it home. Experts believe it will hold clues to how life began.

Nasa has awarded $1.2 million for a preliminary engineering study of the unmanned mission. It would launch in 2011, collect a chunk of the asteroid two years later and return it to Earth in 2017.

RQ36 is just under half a mile wide and is officially classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid” because of the impact risk. At its closest, it currently passes by just 40,000 miles further than the moon.

Principal Investigator Michael Drake, of the University of Arizona, said the probe will “return a pristine sample of the scientifically priceless asteroid RQ36 to Earth for in-depth study.”

Osiris is named after the Egyptian god of life and fertility. Deputy Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta said: “We’re looking at the kind of object that we think brought life to Earth – that is, objects that seeded Earth with early biomolecules, the precursors of life.”

The probe is expected to bring back about five ounces of the asteroid which will be examined by scientists around the world. The mission will also help scientists learn more about how to track the orbits of asteroids that might hit Earth and measure how the pressure of sunlight affects their motion – a force called the Yarkovsky effect.

The Osiris proposal was among around two dozen submitted in response to an invitation by Nasa as part of its Discovery Program.

A Japanese spaceprobe, Hyabusa, is currently flying home after collecting samples of another asteroid called Itokawa.

Picture: An artist’s impression of Osiris at the asteroid.

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