Today NASA announced the next medium-class science mission to explore the solar system. The winner of a three-way competition is a mouthful: Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx). It is a spacecraft that would scoop as much as 2 kilograms of rocky soil off a 600-meter-diameter asteroid in 2020 and return the sample to the Utah desert in 2023 for laboratory analysis. While strictly speaking a science mission to better understand the nature and origins of a primitive solar system building block, OSIRIS-REx dovetails nicely with President Barack Obama's plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.
Costing roughly $1 billion, OSIRIS-Rex would launch in 2016 and spend 6 months mapping asteroid 1999 RQ36. Living up to all the ambitions of its official name, OSIRIS-REx would explore the origins of asteroids and thus the solar system itself, connect spectral colors observable from Earth to specific minerals on the asteroid, identify potential resources such as water for rocket fuel, help evaluate the threat of asteroids to Earth, and return some regolith (asteroid soil) for detailed analysis.
Two fields of planetary science took serious hits with today's announcement of the competition results.
A mission to explore the surface and atmospheric geochemistry of Venus was the best hope of U.S. scientists wishing to return to Earth's sister planet for the first time in decades. And a mission to return a sample from the moon's largest impact crater would have been some comfort to lunar scientists still smarting from Obama's decision to redirect NASA's crewed space exploration from the moon to near-Earth asteroids.