The ancient Egyptians believed that the universe emerged from an ocean called Nun, boundless and inert. At the beginning of time, a mound pierced the surface of the waters and rose from the void. Upon the mound stood the sun god Atum, who summoned the cosmos into being. Slowly, nothing became everything. Atum had two children, who had two children of their own: Geb, the earth, and Nut, the sky. They fell in love, as divine siblings often do, and conceived two sons and two daughters. The firstborn, Osiris, was the rightful ruler of Egypt, but his younger brother, Set, was consumed with jealousy. He murdered Osiris and dismembered his corpse, scattering it in pieces across the kingdom. The remains fertilized the Nile and made the desert bloom.
The story of our solar system, as astrophysicists know it, is not so different. It begins with another vast expanse of inert stuff—a cloud of gas and dust. Some 4.6 billion years ago, the cloud stirred, perhaps troubled by a passing star or the shock waves of a nearby supernova, spreading out into an immense disk that began to spin. At the center of the disk was a white-hot mass of plasma, which devoured most of the material around it and became our sun. Its energy and gravity sorted the rest of the disk by kind. The hardy substances, like rocks and metals, remained close to the center, where they coalesced into the inner planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The more fragile compounds retreated to the far reaches of the disk, beyond what astronomers call the snow line, forming the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) and the frigid remainders beyond (Pluto, the comets, and the embryos of planets that never materialized). The story ends, of course, with life. It’s what happened in the middle—what made the desert bloom—that still has scientists flummoxed.
For a cell to survive, it requires three ingredients: nucleic acids, like DNA and RNA, to guide its development; amino acids to build proteins; and a lipid envelope to protect it from the elements. When life on our planet got its start, nearly four billion years ago, Earth was short on these ingredients. Where did they come from? The prevailing theory centers on a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. It suggests that, at the time, the solar system had not reached its current equipoise; the giant planets were on the move, and their gravity jostled free large numbers of asteroids and comets. Some drifted away into interstellar space, but others rushed inward, battering Earth with rock and ice. The onslaught lasted many millions of years, and though it brought unimaginable ruin it may also have seeded our planet with the chemical precursors of life. Very little now remains of that primordial Earth, but over the years meteorites have provided tantalizing clues of what might have fallen here, Osiris-like, from above. The Murchison meteorite, for instance, which struck rural Australia, in 1969, has been found to contain more than a hundred varieties of amino acid, along with the building blocks of lipids.
But meteorites, toasted in Earth’s atmosphere and sullied by its dirt, are imperfect specimens. So, in 2009, a team at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (L.P.L.) made a proposal to NASA: they would send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, dig up a pristine sample, and bring it back home. The aerospace company Lockheed Martin would build the craft in Colorado, with input and instrumentation from a host of other institutions, including L.P.L., M.I.T., the Canadian Space Agency, France’s National Center for Space Studies, and many of NASA’s major research laboratories. Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator and a dabbler in Egyptology, christened it OSIRIS. “I call that the backronym,” he told me recently. Then he and his colleagues threw in a suffix, “REx,” because they liked its dinosaurish sound.
OSIRIS-REx’s target asteroid was an ideal candidate. It was shaped plainly, like a sixteen-hundred-foot-wide lump of coal, and rotated slowly enough—just shy of once every four hours—to land on. It was also relatively close, approaching Earth every six years in its orbit around the sun. All that needed changing was its name, 1999 RQ36. In 2013, as the eight-hundred-million-dollar project came together, the Planetary Society, an American nonprofit, organized a contest to pick a new one. Michael Puzio, a nine-year-old from North Carolina, submitted the winning entry. Taking his cue from Lauretta, Puzio had looked into the annals of Egyptian cosmogony and found mention there of another deity—Bennu, a long-legged wading bird, who had landed on the mound of creation and let loose an omnific caw. OSIRIS-REx, with its solar panels flung wide, reminded Puzio of a heron in flight, and from then on the asteroid was known as Bennu. The scientists picked a date for launch: September 8, 2016.
For an American whose ideal of space exploration is the swaggering Apollo program, or the energetic prime of the Space Shuttle, the agency’s more recent missions can look a little sensible and middle-aged. NASA has feelers around the solar system—telescopes and satellite observatories orbiting Earth; two rovers on Mars; probes near Jupiter and Saturn and out past Pluto—but these days it only sends astronauts to the International Space Station, which is practically on our doorstep. Meanwhile, some of the world’s tech billionaires have promised a return to the excitement of NASA’s glory years. Richard Branson, with his company Virgin Galactic, has envisioned humanity’s first “commercial spaceline.” Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is planning a similar venture with Blue Origin. (The company’s Latin motto translates as “Step by step, ferociously.”) Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and the C.E.O. of Tesla Motors, hopes that his company SpaceX will eventually establish a colony on Mars.
Since the beginning of the first Clinton Administration, NASA has accounted for a smaller and smaller percentage of the federal budget. (In his free time, Lauretta has created a board game called XTRONAUT, which allows players to put together their own missions. One of the game’s Action cards reads, “GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN: CHOOSE A PLAYER. THAT PLAYER LOSES NEXT TURN.”) Last year, in a panel at the Council on Foreign Relations, Lori Garver, a former deputy NASA administrator under President Obama, spoke about the agency’s loss of purpose, blaming it not on scientists but on Congress. “NASA was the very symbol of capitalist ideals, as we went to the moon and beat the Russians,” she said. “Now what we’re working with is more of a socialist plan for space exploration, which is just anathema to what this country should be doing.” The question, she made clear, isn’t whether humans should go to space, or where they should go once they’re there, but how—with lumbering, expensive government projects like NASA’s future Space Launch System, often derided around Capitol Hill as the Senate Launch System, or nimble, private-sector ones developed by Bezos, Musk, and their ilk.
If these eccentric Silicon Valley projects seem daring, NASA’s are remarkably businesslike. OSIRIS-REx was scheduled to depart from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, on central Florida’s shimmering Atlantic coast, one of more than fifteen launches that will take place by the end of 2016. (Nearly all are destined for orbit around Earth.) The mission was temporarily headquartered just over the Banana River, on Merritt Island, which is two U.S. government outposts in one—the John F. Kennedy Space Center sitting smack on top of a national wildlife refuge. Together, these three federal zones are home to gopher tortoises, great blue herons, and a large fraction of America’s aeronautical infrastructure. Ruler-straight stretches of asphalt (NASA Parkway, Instrumentation Road) crisscross lush expanses of wetland pine and palm.
On the morning of Wednesday, September 7th, I joined a group of journalists, engineers, scientists, and other enthusiasts on a small hill overlooking OSIRIS-REx’s launch pad to see the two-hundred-foot-tall rocket rolled out of its hangar. People wore their nerdy best; one aging reporter carried a galaxy-print JanSport, and a young photographer wore a hat with NASA’s vintage red logotype, the worm, except that the agency’s name had been replaced with the word “NASTY.” From where we stood, more than three-quarters of a mile away, the rocket looked surprisingly small. Its movement was almost undetectable. As it inched from its boxy hangar toward the pad, the group chatted affably. I took a look around. Behind us, by the water, was the Beach House, where astronauts have sometimes gathered for preflight family barbecues. To our left, down the road, was Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 40, which SpaceX licensed from the Air Force in 2007. Just the week before, one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets had exploded there during launch. Its twisted remnants were still visible, and one of the pad’s four lightning towers—“the Leaning Tower of Elon,” someone said—had been burned black.
OSIRIS-REx ended up taking half an hour to travel the third of a mile from hangar to pad. From there, on Thursday, it would leave the atmosphere, orbit the sun for a year, then swing back toward Earth, dipping beneath the South Pole and using the planet’s gravity to slingshot itself toward its target. The spacecraft’s official approach to Bennu won’t begin until August of 2018, when they are more than a million miles apart. In the ensuing few months, OSIRIS-REx will match the asteroid’s trajectory and speed—nearly sixty-three thousand miles per hour—and begin mapping it, first globally, then locally. “By the end of our local-mapping campaign, we will be able to see an object the size of a penny on the surface of Bennu,” Daniella DellaGiustina, the mission’s lead image-processing scientist, said. Then Lauretta, the principal investigator, will choose a good spot for collecting the sample.
Apart from launch and reëntry, this is the hairiest part of a mission. When the first Lunar Module descended onto the moon, its guidance computer became briefly overloaded, sending the craft toward an area strewn with boulders. Neil Armstrong, sitting in the pilot’s seat, wrested partial control and steered it safely into the Sea of Tranquillity. OSIRIS-REx’s pilots are on Earth, and when its attempt begins it will be so far away that radio signals from NASA’s Deep Space Network take eighteen minutes to reach it—much too long to permit any human micromanaging. It must perform its descent autonomously. Such exercises are fairly common nowadays, but they have a mixed track record. In November of 2005, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency sent its own spacecraft, Hayabusa, down to an asteroid known as Itokawa. The mission was plagued by technical difficulties. First a tiny hopping robot called Minerva deployed at the wrong time, missing Itokawa altogether and floating away into space. Then Hayabusa crash-landed and was marooned on the asteroid for thirty minutes. It never collected its sample, but the impact scattered free a few grains of dust, which Hayabusa brought limpingly home.
If all goes to plan, OSIRIS-REx’s time on Bennu will be almost comically brief. Christina Richey, the mission’s deputy program scientist, called the descent not a landing but a “safe, smooth, slow high five.” A long tube, the Touch-and-Go Sample Arm Mechanism (TAGSAM), will place a metal circle about the size of an elephant’s foot onto the surface of Bennu. The device will release a spurt of nitrogen gas, kicking up dust and gravel, which it will then collect. Within five seconds, the operation will be over. Then, like a crab eating its dinner, OSIRIS-REx will use its arm to lift the sample into a storage capsule for safekeeping. TAGSAM contains three bottles of nitrogen, which allow for three separate attempts. Once Lauretta’s team has collected at least sixty grams of material—equivalent to “about four tablespoons of packed brown sugar,” according to DellaGiustina—OSIRIS-REx will close up shop and quietly await the beginning of its journey back to Earth. It will drop its capsule over the Utah desert in 2023. “By that point, I’ll have been working on this for almost twenty years,” Lauretta said.
Getting the American taxpayer to bankroll a twenty-year quest for four tablespoons of dust and gravel may seem a tall order. But OSIRIS-REx, like any good NASA mission, has a host of other motivations. They are expressed in its acronym: Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer. That first word is the crux of the mission—the ancient record of life’s beginnings. When the sample returns to Earth, it will be taken to the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office, in Houston. A small portion will be sent to the Japanese and the Canadians, and another quarter or so will go to the OSIRIS-REx science team. But most of the sample will be archived for future generations to examine with new instruments and new theories.
The second motivation, “resource identification,” sees Bennu as something like a gas station. The United Launch Alliance, which sends rockets to space for NASA, commercial corporations, and the Department of Defense, estimates that the average cost of a single launch is two hundred and twenty-five million dollars. (That’s about twenty-eight per cent of the total cost of OSIRIS-REx.) If humanity is to establish outposts on the moon or Mars, some cost-cutting will be in order. Scientists and private contractors suppose that the solution could be to mine asteroids, since necessary supplies like water and—if you split it apart—oxygen are already there, along with valuable elements rare on Earth. One major asteroid-mining company, Planetary Resources, boasts such investors as Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, both of Google. Lauretta is on its advisory board, as is the filmmaker James Cameron.
And then there’s “security,” which is to say planetary defense. Bennu is one of six hundred and thirty-five asteroids that the Sentry Program, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, currently classifies as having the potential to cause “future Earth impact events.” Fortunately, it doesn’t merit much concern for now. Bennu was so well observed in the run-up to OSIRIS-REx that its orbital period around the sun, which is a little slower than our own, can be predicted to within six milliseconds. As time goes by, however, the Sentry Program’s estimates will become more uncertain. This is in part due to a phenomenon—which OSIRIS-REx will help quantify—known as the Yarkovsky effect, in which uneven heating by the sun pushes an asteroid from its normal orbit. “That six milliseconds is going to grow,” Steve Chesley, a senior research scientist at J.P.L., told me. In 2135, the asteroid will make its closest approach to Earth since at least 1654, passing about as near to us as the moon is, its trajectory torqued by our planet’s gravity. At that point, Chesley said, all bets are off. Where exactly Bennu goes next is anyone’s guess.
Even if Bennu did hit Earth, some day in the distant future, it wouldn’t be a world-ender. According to Purdue University’s ImpactEarth! calculator, it would have roughly the explosive power of 1.4 billion tons of TNT, which is to say that it would form a crater several miles wide, likely sparing anyone beyond a few hundred miles from the point of impact. (If it hit the ocean, there would be a large tsunami.) Catastrophes of this scale happen once every hundred thousand years on Earth. Those like the one that likely killed the dinosaurs, excavating the hundred-mile-wide Chicxulub crater, beneath the Yucatán Peninsula, happen once every hundred million. Still, the risk to civilization isn’t quite zero, so astrophysicists have theorized two main methods of deflecting an asteroid: the kinetic impactor (a big slug of metal), and the nuclear standoff burst.
Even with all that OSIRIS-REx promises—the answers to primeval questions, a future of madcap gold rushes through the galaxy, the frisson of nuclear war and fiery cataclysm—it is surprisingly easy to become inured to the excitement of space travel. Still, in my three days around Kennedy, this sense of lassitude would sometimes give way, without warning, to pangs of realization. I waited sweatily in line to see a museum exhibit, then welled up at the sight of the space shuttle Atlantis, hanging by cables from the ceiling, the markings from its last reëntry and landing still visible. I sat in a science briefing about the effect of heliophysics on asteroids, then got a text message from my eldest sister—pictures of my niece on her first day of kindergarten, her pale-blue lunch box decorated with planets, her younger brother crying in a raincoat on the sidewalk. I drained the dehumidifer in my mildewed hotel room, then thought of OSIRIS-REx tucked dry at the top of its rocket, a tiny vessel for a preposterous number of hopes and anxieties and unanswered questions.
At a quarter to four on Thursday, Michael Puzio, now a dark-haired boy of twelve, stopped by Kennedy with Bill Nye the Science Guy. At five o’clock, the ground crew at Launch Complex 41 began pumping freezing liquid-oxygen fuel into the rocket—first into its second stage, called the Centaur, then into the Atlas V, its main booster below. At a quarter to six, I made my way to the Vehicle Assembly Building with a group of thirty other spectators to watch OSIRIS-REx leave Earth.
The V.A.B., which sits at the heart of Kennedy, is the sort of structure that invites comparison—larger by volume than one and a half Pentagons, and adorned with an American flag whose blue canton is approximately the size of a basketball court. The building was constructed in the mid-nineteen-sixties to service the missions to the moon. It consists of a single story, five hundred feet tall and divided vertically by steel trusses and partitions of thick-gauge wire mesh, and is so enormous that it has been rumored to have its own weather. As we rode the elevators up to the roof before launch, a spectator said that he’d once seen clouds forming on its ceiling.
He, like most of the rest, was a veteran. Many of the people in the group had a dozen or more launches under their belts, and one had been coming to photograph them since the Apollo days. They spread out in clumps along the gritty asphalt roof, casting long shadows in the evening light. I stood alone by the railing on the V.A.B.’s eastern side and watched the turkey vultures, which were riding the thermals at eye level. The rocket lay four miles away, an elegant pillar of white amid the green and blue of Cape Canaveral.
A few minutes before launch, the echoes of a P.A. system on the ground began to reach us. The engineers went through their final checks. With twenty-five seconds left on the clock, each team signed off.
Then the final countdown from ten began.
The sound of ignition reached us several seconds after zero. It began as a rumble, and as the rocket rose, lit with white flame and pouring smoke, it developed into a throaty, pulsating roar. Either my legs were shaking or the V.A.B. was vibrating. In a few more seconds, the rocket was pitching itself almost imperceptibly toward the ocean. Shards of ice tumbled off its frost-bound fuel tanks. As it went up higher and higher, the sky around it darkened from light blue to navy and finally to black. Now all we could see was the smoke trail. After four minutes, the booster shut down and fell away, drifting back to Earth. Soon the nose cone came off, splitting into two pieces like the halves of a pistachio shell and exposing OSIRIS-REx to the vacuum of space. It was already halfway between Florida and Mauritania. When it reached Australia, it broke free of the rocket’s second stage. Then it spread its solar panels, one hour into its seven-year flight.
Anthony Lydgate is the editor of Elements, newyorker.com’s science-and-tech blog. MORE