The robotic spacecraft launched in 2016 and will rendezvous with the near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36, renamed as Asteroid Bennu, in 2020. A robotic arm will collect at least 60 grams of material from the surface of the asteroid to be returned to Earth in 2023 for worldwide distribution by the NASA Astromaterials Curation Facility at JSC.
The target asteroid is believed to be a primitive type that is rich in organic matter. Such primitive asteroids contains original material from the cloud of dust and gas that gave rise to our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago and could yield important clues about its formation.
The ARES curation group will be involved in several different aspects of the mission. Because the target asteroid is potentially carbon-rich, great care will be taken to ensure a contamination-free environment, part of which means monitoring all materials that go into the design and construction of the touch-and-go sample acquisition mechanism (TAGSAM) and the sample return capsule (SRC).
Several years before the return of the sample to Earth, a curation laboratory dedicated to the OSIRIS-REx samples will be constructed. During sample recovery operations at the Utah Test and Training Range, a portable clean room will be established for the initial arrival of samples and preparation for transport to Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.
Finally, the curation group will oversee the initial characterization, cataloging and distribution of samples to the science team and a large group of international scientists. In addition to collecting samples, OSIRIS-REx will gather data to help scientists better understand the physical characteristics of potentially hazardous asteroids. Data collected on its surface properties, internal structure and orbital dynamics can be used to help develop hazard mitigation strategies for deflecting asteroids that approach Earth in the future.
Asteroid Bennu is also a type of near-Earth asteroid that NASA is considering for human exploration missions as early as 2025. Information that OSIRIS-REx collects from Asteroid Bennu will help formulate the types of operations and identify the mission activities that astronauts will perform during their expeditions to these asteroids. Such information is crucial in preparing for humanity's next steps beyond low Earth orbit and on to deep space destinations.