KUSA - A Colorado-built spacecraft is about to undertake a mission never attempted by NASA before: travel to an asteroid, collect a sample and bring it back to Earth.

“We’re actually in contact with the asteroid for about three seconds where we collect our sample and then go back into orbit around the asteroid and stow that sample and bring it home,” said Lockheed Martin OSIRIS-REx Program Manager Richard Kuhns.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral on Thursday. It’s a Colorado native, so to speak – built by Lockheed Martin in Jefferson County. The mission team also includes scientists from CU Boulder.

It is heading to Bennu, an asteroid discovered back in 1999. Every six years, it makes a close approach to Earth, which OSIRIS-REx will use to its advantage. It will launch toward Bennu in the hopes of learning more about it and about the beginnings of our solar system.

“People are very excited at actually getting a sample of such a primitive asteroid,” Dan Scheeres said, a professor at CU Boulder, who also heads up the Radio Science Working Group for OSIRIS-REx. “Every time the Earth talks to the spacecraft, we do this by sending radio signals out to the spacecraft wherever it is in the middle of the solar system.”

Bennu is about the length of five football fields. What makes it of particular interest is that it could potentially hit Earth in the year 2150. The sample collected by OSIRIS-REx could help determine what it’s made of, how strong it is and if a mission to deflect Bennu might be needed.

“Those are crucial bits of information if we actually want to carry out a mission that might try to push it out of the way,” Scheeres said.

OSIRIS-Rex will collect its sample from Bennu in 2020. It will then return to Earth and drop a capsule with the asteroid sample into the Utah desert in the year 2023. By then, the spacecraft will have traveled 4.4 billion miles.