NASA gave the all-systems-go signal Thursday for a University of Arizona-led mission to mine samples from a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu.
The UA's OSIRIS-REx team has passed its design-and-development test. It can now move to building the capsule and instruments that will lift off in 2016 for a seven-year odyssey to the asteroid previously known by its sequential discovery code of 1999RQ36.
"We're extremely pleased. This is the biggest milestone between being selected and launching the mission," said Tim Swindle, director of the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, where the mission is housed.
The UA was chosen to head up the $800 million robotic mission in May 2011. It was proposed by former LPL Director Mike Drake and co-investigator Dante Lauretta.
Lauretta took over as principal investigator after Drake's death later that year.
Lauretta said the team has passed all of its NASA milestones "with flying colors," and this major step was no surprise but still very welcome. "NASA's sending the rest of the money," he said.
Lauretta said the multidecade mission will employ, at its peak, more than 400 scientists, engineers and technicians, with about 100 of them in Tucson.
The UA's principal partners on the mission are the Goddard Space Flight Center and Lockheed-Martin. Scientists from Arizona State University and the Canadian Space Agency are also participating.
A team of planetary scientists, optical scientists and astronomers at the UA is designing the camera and other instruments for the mission, which is directed by the UA.
OSIRIS-REx will arrive at the asteroid two years after launch and spend nearly two years mapping, imaging and measuring non-gravitational forces acting on Bennu to gain a more precise understanding of the potential danger posed by it and other near-Earth objects.
Lauretta said NASA has grown increasingly enthusiastic about the science of the mission, which can be applied to a planned human mission to an asteroid.
Lauretta, a meteor expert, said the most interesting science will occur after OSIRIS-REx uses its sampling arm to extract a minimum of 60 grams of the asteroid and return it to Earth in a capsule by 2023.
"That's what the mission is all about - getting that primitive, pristine carbonaceous rock."
Planetary scientists expect the rock, a remnant from the formation of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, to hold water and amino acids, clues to the creation of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the solar system.
The mission will keep UA scientists busy for years, said Swindle, who said the final item in the project budget is for analyzing samples in 2025.
The science won't stop there, he said. "We're still analyzing samples from the Apollo (moon) missions 40 years after the fact."
Precise measurement of Bennu will also help scientists assess its danger. The asteroid is about a third of a mile in diameter. In its current orbit, it will approach Earth in 2186 and has a 1-in-1,800 chance of entering the atmosphere.
The name "Bennu" was the winning entry in a contest held by the team, along with the Planetary Society and MIT's Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research, which discovered the asteroid in 1999.
The name Bennu was chosen earlier this month. It was proposed by North Carolina third-grader Michael Puzio.
Bennu, an Egyptian deity, is sometimes depicted as a blue heron, which resembles the winged panels of OSIRIS-REx and its long sampling arm.
On StarNet: Go to azstarnet. com/video to see a couple of videos about the project.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.