TUCSON, Ariz. - It's a mission to deep space that will not end for another six years. When it does end, however, the findings could be astounding.
Currently, the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft is on its way to an asteroid called 101955 Bennu, in order to bring a piece of an asteroid.
Back on Earth, scientists can't wait to get a good look at it, once it arrives.
OSIRIS-REx was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on September 8 in 2016. From planning - to launch - to it's return in 2023 - the OSIRIS-REx mission is run from the University of Arizona in Tucson.
"The University of Arizona has the responsibility of the full oversight of the science objective, and meeting the requirements of the mission," said Heather Enos, the Deputy Principal Investigator for OSIRIS-REx.
Once it reaches 101955 Bennu, OSIRIS-REx will map and study the surface of the asteroid. Afterwards, it will carefully approach the surface to pluck off a sample.
"We will then carefully stow the sample in our sample return capsule and return to Utah in September 2023," said Enos.
About six years from now, OSIRIS-REx will re-enter Earth's atmosphere somewhere over Utah, with a sample of the asteroid onboard.
"We are looking very much forward to 2023, when these samples come back," said Dr. Thomas Zega, an Associate Professor of Cosmochemistry and Planetary Materials at U of A's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Dr. Zega will be in charge of the sample collected by OSIRIS-REx, once NASA turns it over.
"We have one of the best instruments in the world to do this kind of measurement," said Zega.
The sample won't be big, but three different labs will analyze the sample. After it's trimmed down to size, a$4.5 million electron microscope will do the heavy lifting.
"Theres a gun at the top where electrons are emitted," said Dr. Zega. "They are accelerated to about 80% of the speed of light. That's 200,000 volts."
When their small part of 101955 Bennu returns, scientists like Zega will be looking at samples older than the Solar System itself.
"They are older than 4.5 billion years," said Dr. Zega.
Scientists believe 101955 Bennu has organic compounds that could hold the key to life on Earth.
"Each one of the atoms in that sample will have something to tell us about our origins," said Dr. Zega. "It will be exciting when it gets back."
What kind of organic compounds, however, will OSIRIS-REx return to Earth? Unlike the movies, Dr. Zega said people don't have to worry about aliens taking over.
"It's highly unlikely that there is anything in there that will do us any harm," said Dr. Zega. "The environment in space is not very conducive to life. So I don't think we have anything to worry about."
Space aliens aside, it's a very exciting time for what scientists call "Cosmo chemics."
"It's going to be really busy, really exciting, but this is what you get into this field for right?" said Dr. Zega.
Besides an attempt to gain a better understanding of life on Earth, NASA wants to learn as much as possible about the asteroid because there is a very small chance the asteroid could hit Earth in the late 22nd century.
NASA stresses the chance is slim, and even if there is an impact, scientists say the asteroid is not big enough to wipe out all life on Earth.