Story by Zac Ziegler and Tom Kleespie
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The latest NASA project for the University of Arizona is one step closer to launch, and its ultimate goal is bringing back a piece of an asteroid to Earth.

The mission is known as OSIRIS REx, an acronym for the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer.

The spacecraft got approved earlier this month to move from designing phase to building phase after a review meeting in Denver, Colo.

When it launches in September 2016, OSIRIS REx will be heading for a rendezvous with an asteroid named Bennu. Once there, the spacecraft will spend a year and a half mapping the asteroid, and it will collect samples to bring back to Earth in 2023.

“Return sample missions are hard. There’s no other way to put it,” said Josh Wood, OSIRIS REx design lead. “Being able to go collect a sample, bring it back and not only dealing with the sample collection itself but actually the whole earth reentry. It’s not a simple process.”

OSIRIS REx will be the first time in more than 40 years that NASA tries to bring samples larger than a few particles back to Earth.

“The last time we brought back true tangible samples of something was Apollo missions from the moon,” Wood said. “Humans went down, collected the rocks, put them in packages and shipped them back, but there was human involvement there. For the OSIRIS REx mission, we need to be able to do that completely autonomously.”

The spacecraft will use a “touch and go” sampling method designed specifically for the mission.

The only part of OSIRIS REx that will touch the surface is the collector at the end of an arm. The rest of the craft will fly next to the asteroid while the sample is collected.

“That’s part of the whole beauty of this mechanism,” said Alex May, who is in charge of the Touch-and-Go phase. “We’re not going to have to land and rely on gravity holding us down. Instead we’re going to make a quick contact with the surface.”

Once a sample is harvested, OSIRIS REx will pull away. At that point, scientists will get their first look at the samples using one of the spacecraft’s cameras. They’ll weigh it, and look for what is called regolith.

“Regolith is just a fancy scientific name for dirt,” said Beau Bierhaus, a research scientist with Lockheed Martin. “There’s regolith on the moon, there’s regolith on Mars, there’s regolith on asteroids but that’s just basically a way of saying dirt.”

In its first year orbiting the asteroid, OSIRIS-REx will find just the right place to touch. After it’s collected the sample, the regolith will be sealed in a return capsule. The capsule is a high-tech ice chest, keeping the sample protected as it heads home at 25,000 miles an hour.

It’ll even keep the sample cool as OSIRIS REx goes through the extreme heat of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

“OSIRIS-REx is definitely a unique mission,” Wood said. “There’s no doubt about it. Being able to go out, touch another celestial body, bring back a sample and return it to earth for scientists, it doesn’t get better than this.”

The project is expected to cost nearly $1 billion, and will tell scientists more about how the solar system began and how life started on Earth.