Canada partners with NASA to intercept an asteroid that could hit Earth

An artist's illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects, that highlight the need for a complete Space Situational Awareness system. (ESA - P.Carril)

The Maple Leaf will be heading a potentially hazardous asteroid in two years' time, according an announcement made today by the federal government.

Canada is partnering with NASA on its OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer) mission – the first US-led probe expected to return samples from an asteroid.

Canada will be providing the vital laser-based system called the Laser Altimeter (OLA). Its $61 million investment will be fixed to the side of the probe and will be used to create high-resolution 3D maps of asteroid Bennu. These unprecedented maps will help mission engineers select a safe site from which to collect a sample.

"Our government is proud to support Canada's space sector through a partnership with NASA on this ambitious mission to return a piece of an asteroid to Earth," said Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board in a press statement.

"In return for Canada's contribution, the Canadian Space Agency will receive a portion of the total returned sample letting Canadian scientists conduct research that could revolutionize our understanding of the solar system and our planet Earth."

Bennu is 500 metres wide and regularly crosses Earth's orbit, posing a threat of collision. Some calculations indicate that it has a 1-in-1,800 chance of hitting in the year 2182. However, the real risks won't be known until we can analyze the asteroid's physical makeup, so scientists are eager to get a chance to get a close-up look at the asteroid and have a piece of it in their hands to study.

The spacecraft is expected to be ready for launch by 2016 and will rendezvous with the giant space rock in 2018. It will then study Bennu's geology for about 8 months, and once it has found a safe spot for collecting samples, the probe will descend and hover a few metres above the surface and use a robotic arm to collect material and return it to Earth in 2023.

OSIRIS-REx also aims to provide scientists with a deeper understanding of how asteroids are connected to the origins of the solar system. It will also take inventory of exploitable resources for future manned missions and will help figure out how best to deal with potentially hazardous asteroids like Bennu.

Why the strange name of Bennu? The target asteroid got its name thanks to a third-grade contest winner organized by the mission planners and refers to a Egyptian mythological bird.

To help build excitement around the mission, the public is invited to go along for the ride by sending their names on the round-trip journey to the asteroid. Names will be etched on a microchip and fixed to the spacecraft that will return back to Earth after seven years in deep space. The sign-up campaign is open until Sept. 30, 2014.

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