NASA is practically done with the space shuttle program, but sending robot drones into space is far from being dead. In 2016 they hope that their next robotic drone OSIRIS-REx will be ready for launch on a two way trip to asteroid 1999 RQ36 where it will scoop up more than 2 ounces of asteroid material using a robotic arm and then sending it back to earth.
OSIRIS-REx will embark on a first of a kind mission, the overall cost of the mission will be at an estimated $800 Million US Dollars,. OSIRIS-REx will circle the asteroid for a year mapping out exactly how looks and how it behaves at a distance of 3 miles. After the mission commanders feel it’s safe enough to get closer, it will then get up to 6 feet in distance, using a robot arm it will collect a teaspoon of “soil” and the drone will begin it’s fly back home.
The mission is expected to last 7 years, it will be launched in 2016, with the robot reaching the asteroid by 2020, and not returning to Earth until 2023. Once it reaches the Earth, it’s going to “shoot” the samples to Earth on a small capsule and it will embark on a mission to the sun where it will begin to orbit the sun and carry out additional missions.
If the robot does return home, and the capsule does hold the contents together, the particles it collected from the surface of the asteroid will hold clues as to how the universe was started. Humberto Campins, a University of Central Florida professor who discovered water ice on two different asteroids last year,believes the samples will contain planet and star-forming material which should (in theory) “provide a snapshot of our solar system’s infancy.”
The reason scientist can’t perform this kind of research using asteroids that already here on Earth is because during the entry into our planet, the asteroids lose over 99% of it’s mass thanks to our atmosphere. So this is supposed to be an uncontaminated sample of pure star dust.
A secondary mission, which is a back up just in case the particles don’t reach earth, will help NASA understand and learn how to better track orbits of asteroids. Which is a apparently a hard job since asteroids have unusual gravity fields and can rotate much quicker than planets. I guess it’s a good thing just in case we ever have to land in one to blow it up.