Space is hard. Sometimes, the Old School folks–NASA, JPL–make it look so easy we forget that. We all “Ooohed” and “Aaahed” at the mammoth achievement that was the Juno craft’s close shave of Jupiter on July 4th, which put it in position for its regular orbits.
Then we cringed last week when new kid on the block, SpaceX, had the second disaster in their hit-and-miss history.
So I was pretty nervous this week when OSIRIS-REx, NASA’s long-awaited asteroid sample-return mission vehicle, sat on a launch pad rocket. I saw a comment on Twitter asking if there was a way to salvage the probe if something were to go catastrophically wrong with the rocket as it had with SpaceX.
Rockets launch things out of Earth’s gravity because they are big, huge, carefully controlled bombs. “Carefully controlled” most of the time.
This time, though, it was a picture-perfect launch:
After launch, the rocket hurtled the craft into Earth orbit on a trajectory that will take it towards the asteroid Bennu, where it will orbit for a year, studying the space rock, before landing, collecting samples, and bringing those samples back to Earth.
An unmanned spacecraft that actually comes back to us is kind of a big deal. Usually, once they leave Earth orbit, they’re gone forever; it’s too expensive to give them enough fuel to bring them home. But if we ever hope to understand asteroids, we need to study the materials they are made of. And short of going to one ourselves, or bringing one to us, this is the cheapest alternative… for now.