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NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launches successfully from Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, Sept. 8 as it heads for Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid that may contain answers about from where our solar system came.

Two University of Central Florida professors form part of NASA’s science team for its OSIRIS-REx mission, which is well underway after a successful spacecraft launch Thursday evening.

“We’re really proud of UCF’s contribution to OSIRIS-REx and we look forward to continue the collaboration,” OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta said during the post-launch press briefing at Kennedy Space Center.

Pegasus Professor Humberto Campins and Associate Professor Yan Fernandez have both been working diligently as part of the science team for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is headed to asteroid Bennu, where NASA hopes to collect and bring back samples of the asteroid. The entire round-trip mission is estimated to take seven years, with OSIRIS-REx returning back to Earth in September 2023.

For both Campins and Fernandez, work will be getting exciting sometime around the third and fourth year when they’ll be analyzing the best site on Bennu for OSIRIS-REx to bring back a sample from. Fernandez said that the goal is to bring back a sample with as many organic compounds as possible, especially because Bennu is classified as a primitive asteroid, which means that the composition of the asteroid has not been altered since it was formed.

“We’re hoping to get a very fundamental look at what asteroid composition is like,” Fernandez said. “That’s important because those are the kind of asteroids that we think brought a lot of the water and a lot of the carbon compounds to Earth when it was really young.”

That’s what NASA hopes to get a good look at the asteroid as well.

NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan said that the sample that OSIRIS-REx brings back will help answer basic questions that NASA is focusing on, like how Earth was formed and how it works.

“Every day at NASA we’re turning science fiction into science fact and that’s what we did tonight,” Stoffan said.

The post-launch press briefing was humming with excitement from both media and scientists alike. The seamless launch of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft put an optimistic glow over all the panelists taking part of the briefing.

“The best times are ahead of us,” Lauretta said. “We are going to get to asteroid Bennu, we’re going to map it, we’re going to pick that site, we’re going to get that sample and we’re going to bring it back to Earth in 2023.”

To both NASA and UCF, the success of the launch and the mission as it unfolds over the next seven years will be pivotal.

“This represents the hopes and dreams, hard work, blood, sweat and tears of thousands and thousands of people that have worked on this program for over a decade to make this a reality,” Lauretta said.

Campins has been part of the OSIRIS-REx mission from the start, while Fernandez joined the science team about a year and a half ago.

“We’re really proud to be part of UCF for this and be able to have UCF involved in this kind of mission,” Fernandez said. “I hope it kind of shows that UCF is a place where really cutting-edge science can be done.”

This cutting-edge science is what NASA is relying on to make this mission a success in seven years.

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s new frontier program, following the New Horizons and Juno missions. All of them were launched to learn more about space and the solar system, with hopes of bringing back answers to the most fundamental space questions.

“This era we’re living in is about understanding our place in the solar system, our place in the milky way galaxy, our place in the universe,” Fernandez said. “Astronomy is actually [how] we’re addressing those questions. For the first time in human history we’re actually addressing those questions and not just speculating.”

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