SpaceX explosion won't affect launch of asteroid probe ORISIS-Rex

NASA is confident the launch pad explosion of a SpaceX rocket at Cape Canaveral last week won’t cause problems for Thursday’s scheduled launch of the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid probe.

“The teams did an extensive walkdown,” Kennedy Space Center launch manager Tim Dunn told a Tuesday press briefing. “We haven’t identified any damage or concerns as a result of the incident last week.”

Mission managers also said SpaceX had shared proprietary data from the explosion with NASA, and NASA’s chief mission engineer “reported no elevated risk” to Thursday’s launch.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe is shown before being placed inside its protective cover or fairing, right, for launch on Thursday, Sept. 11, 2016. The probe will return samples from the asteroid’s surface to Earth in 2023. (NASA) 

The launch window opens Thursday at 6:05 p.m. CDT for the probe’s seven-year roundtrip mission to the asteroid Bennu. Weather forecasts show an 80 percent chance of favorable weather for the first attempt.

OSIRIS-Rex stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. The probe will arrive at the asteroid in 2018, do extensive mapping and then execute a brief touch-and-go approach in 2020 before returning its samples to Earth in 2023.

Several of the questions at Tuesday’s briefing concerned last Thursday’s explosion on a different launch pad of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a communications satellite onboard.

“Our hearts do go out to our colleagues at SpaceX,” Dunn said. “If you’ve been in this business any length of time, you’ve experienced a day like Thursday.”

But Dunn called SpaceX “a very resilient company” that will be back flying soon.

The touchdown will be made by a pogo-stick-like lander extending from the satellite. It will push into the asteroid’s surface, fire a shot of gas to explode dust from the surface into a collector, then push the probe back into space.

“The primary objective of the mission is to bring back 60 grams of pristine carbon-rich material from the surface of Bennu,” chief scientist Dante Lauretta said. “We expect these samples will contain organic molecules from the early solar system that may give us information and clues to the origin of life.”

Bennu itself is about 1,600 feet in diameter. It is fairly well known and has close encounters with Earth every six years as the two bodies orbit the sun at about the same distance from the star. Scientists chose it because of that similar orbit, what we already know about its surface, and its carbon-rich makeup. They also expect to learn more about near-Earth asteroid orbits to help protect the Earth from possible collisions in the future.

The probe will lift off on an Atlas V rocket made by United Launch Alliance in Decatur, Ala., and the mission is managed by NASA’s New Frontiers Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.