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Why Asteroids?

Asteroids hold clues about the origins of the solar system and the evolution of life on our home planet.
Derived from the Greek word for “star-like,” asteroids constitute some of the most ancient bodies in our solar system.

Scientists believe asteroids formed along with the rest of our solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. Like the moon, asteroids hold clues about the origins of the solar system and the evolution of life on our home planet. Scientists will gain understanding about the distribution of organic materials throughout the cosmos while learning about asteroid trajectories and their interactions with Earth.

Human exploration of asteroids would challenge scientists and engineers to design safe and affordable space systems capable of supporting long duration missions beyond the Earth-Moon system. Asteroid investigations would address the technical, physiological, and psychological challenges of human deep space exploration in preparation for Mars expeditions.

Travel Time

Researchers estimate a trip to a near-Earth asteroid and back to Earth will take five to six months.

Mission Spotlight


Current Mission: Dawn

The Dawn spacecraft launched on September 27, 2007 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a Delta II rocket in the pursuit of asteroids Vesta and Ceres—two large, yet differing bodies in the asteroid belt.Vesta and Ceres are protoplanets left over from the formation of the solar system. Though still in progress, the Dawn mission team can boast both technical and scientific accomplishments. It is the first exploratory spacecraft to use an ion propulsion system and in July 2011 became the first mission to orbit an object between Mars and Jupiter.

What’s Next?

Following investigation of Vesta, Dawn is on its way to Ceres and expected to arrive in the spring of 2015. Once arriving at its second target, it will be the first spacecraft to orbit two different planetary bodies in our solar system. Dawn data will help scientist characterize the present state of these objects as well as provide insight into the early formation of our solar system.

Dawn mission website

Future Mission: OSIRIS-REx

The Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission is the third mission selected in NASA’s New Frontiers Program and is currently scheduled to launch in 2016 on a multi-year investigation that culminates in an asteroid sample return to Earth in 2023. The OSIRIS-REx mission will collect 60 grams of material from asteroid 1999 RQ36 for future analysis at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Scientists will study the carbonaceous asteroid’s organic content, the Yarkovsky effect, and any anomalies when compared to ground-based observations. OSIRIS-REx will map the primitive asteroid including geological features, chemistry and mineralogy. Researchers hope to find clues about how the solar system developed and how life evolved on Earth.

OSIRIS-REx Mission Website

Did You Know?

How many near Earth asteroids have been discovered so far?

11,054 (subject to change). The first asteroid, Ceres, was discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi. To date, researchers have identified over 90% of near Earth 1km or larger objects—a body with a diameter between 0.5 and 5km would cause catastrophic damage if on a collision course with Earth.

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