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NASA spacecraft on way to asteroid to bring back samples

Thousands gathered to witness the evening launch of Osiris-Rex, a robotic hunter that looks something like a bird with its solar wings

Published: Updated:

The first NASA explorer of its kind took off on a seven-year quest on Thursday, chasing after a big, black, unexplored asteroid to gather a few handfuls of gravel for return to Earth.

These bite-size bits of ancient space rock from asteroid Bennu could hold clues to the origin of life, not just on our planet but potentially elsewhere in the solar system.

Thousands gathered to witness the evening launch of Osiris-Rex, a robotic hunter that looks something like a bird with its solar wings. The spacecraft took flight atop an Atlas V rocket, which soared a little before sunset on the mission, a U.S. first.

Victory was declared an hour later; launch controllers shook hands and embraced as the spacecraft shot out of Earth’s orbit, bound for Bennu.

“Tonight is a night for celebration. We are on our way to an asteroid,” said NASA’s chief scientist, Ellen Stofan. After all, “we’ve just done something amazing.”

“We got everything just exactly perfect,” added Osiris-Rex chief scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona. “It was an amazing evening for me and for this team.”

It will take two years for Osiris-Rex to reach Bennu (BEHN’-oo), which is circling the sun in a slightly wider orbit than Earth’s. The boxy spacecraft will actually go into orbit around the asteroid, seeking out the best spot before going in for a quick bite.

Round trip, the SUV-sized spacecraft will travel more than 4 billion miles (6 ½ billion kilometers) by mission’s end in 2023.

NASA has gone after comet dust and solar wind particles before, but never anything from an asteroid. It promises to be the biggest cosmic haul since the Apollo moon rocks.

The roundish rock — an estimated 1,600-plus feet (500 meters) across and taller than the Empire State Building — is believed to harbor carbon dating back 4.5 billion years, to the beginning of our solar system. That makes it a time capsule and a scientific prize.

“We will make discoveries on this mission that we have not anticipated. It’s exciting!” said Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” chief executive officer of the Planetary Society.