In 2016 NASA will launch OSIRIS-Rex, an orbiter whose mission will be to investigate an asteroid named Bennu.
Discovered in 1999 the 493 meter (1617 foot), the Bennu asteroid was selected for exploration due to its likely abundance of “pristine carbonaceous materials”, a key component for the formation of life.
Armed with three spectrometers and a series of cameras, OSIRIS will have the ability to create a nearly complete picture of Bennu’s composition.
The OSIRIS-Rex Infrared Spectrometer, will map the asteroid using both the infrared and visible spectrum looking for organic material. The OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer will peer deeper into the infrared spectrum looking for minerals, while also taking the asteroids temperature. OSIRIS’ final instrument, the Regolith X-Ray Imaging Spectrometer, will detect which face of the asteroid is pointed towards the sun and attempt to find any elements that exist on the asteroid’s surface.
When married with the numerous high definition cameras that accompany the craft, OSIRIS’ series of spectrometers will give NASA researchers and those interested in asteroid mining a detailed view of what they should be looking for in future endeavors.
If asteroid mining is ever to be undertaken in a meaningful way, OSIRIS-Rex might just be the craft that turn this hypothetic industry into a reality. Either way, I expect a number of missions both publicly and privately funded will start interrogating asteroids in the coming decades.
Images and Video Courtesy of NASA