The OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) is a major NASA spacecraft whose primary mission involves asteroid study and sample retention. It will also assist in the New Horizons Mission, which aims to observe and study several objects within the Keiper Belt in the outer regions of our Solar System. OSIRIS-REx launched on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, headed toward asteroid 101955 Bennu, a C-class asteroid with a potentially hazardous trajectory with Earth, to extract a sample and analyze the carbonaceous asteroid. Travelling 1.4 million miles (2.2km) from Earth, OSIRIS-Rex arrived at its destination on December 3, 2018, 12 miles away from the rock where it began its initial observations and after a mere eight days since arriving on Bennu, discovered water trapped inside the clay that composes the asteroid.
The data received from two of OSIRIS-Rex spectrometers, OVIRS (Visivle Infrared Spectrometer) and OTES (Thermal Emission Spectrometer) revealed the existence of hydroxyls, molecules containing bonded hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Though this discovery indicates that liquid water may have once existed on Bennu’s surface in the past, this is no longer the case due to Bennu’s small 492 meter diameter. Perhaps its parent body, a much larger asteroid or something else, might have contained liquid water, though at this time it remains unknown.
Though its mission remains far from complete, OSIRIS-REx has already succeeded in pushing the limits of human knowledge and curiosity. I recall several years ago discussing with a friend what it will be like once we discover water somewhere other than Earth, an idea even I could see as outlandish at the time. Now it’s the eve of 2019. There’s organic molecules on Mars, possibly even liquid water. There’s presence of liquid molecules on our Moon and those of Jupiter and Saturn. H2O, the building blocks of life. And now, this asteroid, one of trillions, has traces water on it. H20 is all over the Solar System, making it fair to assume that water may be found all over the universe, and that it would be foolish to not believe that other lifeforms out there do indeed exist. I wonder what they’re like?
Costing nearly $1 Billion, the OSIRIS-REx will be the first spacecraft in history to return a sample from an asteroid, if it succeeds in its mission. Upon its arrival sometime near 2023, a deep analysis of the samples retrieved from Bennu will allow scientists to learn more on the evolution of our Solar System, including the initial stages of the formation of planets and the source of organic compounds that may have very well led to the creation of life on Earth.