NASA has officially invited people from all over the world to register their names in the “Messages to Bennu” program. All those names will be recorded on a microchip that will travel aboard the OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer) spacecraft, which is expected to start its mission in September 2016 for the asteroid 101955 Bennu to collect a sample to bring back to Earth.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, consisting of highly specialized missions for carry out specific studies such as that of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft and Jupiter by the Juno spacecraft. The asteroid Bennu belongs to the Apollo category, a group of asteroids whose orbit crosses that of the Earth and therefore represent a potential danger.
Bennu has an average diameter of almost 500 meters and after being discovered in 1999 it’s been observed extensively, also to assess the probability of an impact with the Earth, which according to some calculations would happen between 2169 and 2199. To determine what are the real chances of an impact it’s necessary to have more information about Bennu’s physical characteristics so the fact that it’s been selected as the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission is positive.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will take about three years to reach the asteroid Bennu. At that point, it will remain at a close distance from it for almost a year and a half. After a first phase of observation, it will be decided the site where to take the sample of the asteroid’s material and how to get close to it to perform this operation. A robotic arm will be used to take the sample without the need for the probe to land on the asteroid.
The sample is expected to contain at least 60 grams of material but it may reach up to 2 kg. The last phase of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft mission will be to return the sample to Earth, where it can be analyzed in depth with the most sophisticated instruments.
For this mission, The Planetary Society collaborates with NASA also to bring the names of people who have registered until September 30, 2014 in space on the spacecraft. It’s not the first time that a microchip containing a list of names is taken in the space: it’s a way to symbolically bring people into space along with the spacecraft.
When you register, a PDF file is created containing a certificate of participation that you can download and print if you like. It will not be like traveling in space but you can show your support to the OSIRIS-REx mission.