Here’s Your Chance to Hitch a Ride to an Asteroid

When the OSIRIS-REx probe arrives at asteroid Bennu, it will study the asteroid from a distance before swooping down and grabbing a sample. Onboard the spacecraft will be the names of everybody participating in the “Messages to Bennu!” campaign. Credit: NASA/GSFC/UA)

A trip to the moon on gossamer wings? While most of us Earthlings will never get to visit other worlds, here’s your chance to fly your name, at least, on a spacecraft heading to a distant asteroid in 2016.

A microchip with the names etched on it will be secured to the side of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer) probe. The probe will rendezvous with the 1,760-foot-wide (500-meter-wide) asteroid Bennu in 2018. The robotic explorer will spend the following two years mapping the giant space rock, and will also scoop up 2 ounces (60 grams) of its pristine surface material before returning the sample in a capsule to Earth in 2023.

This ambitious mission aims to provide scientists with a deeper understanding of how asteroids are connected to the origins of the solar system. It will also take inventory of exploitable resources for future manned missions and seek to add to our knowledge of how to deal with potentially hazardous asteroids, including Bennu.

Some calculations suggest that the asteroid may have a 1-in-1,800 chance of colliding with our planet in the year 2182, so scientists are eager to get a chance to influence Bennu’s orbit.

This artist rendering shows how OSIRIS-REx will approach the asteroid, gather samples, and propel the sample capsule back to Earth. Credit: NASA
This illustration shows OSIRIS-REx propelling the sample capsule back to Earth. Credit: NASA

Although the microchip will be attached to the return capsule, a copy will stay behind, left for posterity with the mother spacecraft in a long-term orbit around the sun in deep space.

“I’m thrilled to be able to share the OSIRIS-REx adventure with people across the Earth. To Bennu and back!” said Dante Lauretta, an astronomer at the University of Arizona and lead scientist of the mission, in a statement.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to get engaged with the mission early and join us as we prepare for launch in 2016.”

To participate in this historic mission, simply submit your name online to the Planetary Society’s campaign website ( by September 30, 2014, and download a personalized, printable certificate of participation.

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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.