OSIRIS-Rex, NASA’s first spacecraft designed to travel to a near-Earth asteroid, will be launched in September 2016, the space agency said in a statement released Monday. OSIRIS-Rex, short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, will be equipped with an instrument known as OVIRS (OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer) that would measure the spectral signatures of the asteroid’s mineralogical and molecular components.

After launch, the OSIRIS-REx will take approximately two years to reach the asteroid “Bennu,” which was selected as the target because of the possible presence of organic molecules on its surface. The plan is to grab at least 60 grams of pristine surface material and return it to Earth for further analysis.

“OVIRS is key to our search for organics on Bennu,” Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in the statement. “In particular, we will rely on it to find the areas of Bennu rich in organic molecules to identify possible sample sites of high science value, as well as the asteroid’s general composition.”

OVIRS, which will map the asteroid in visible and near-infrared, will work in tandem with another instrument, the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), which will map it in thermal infrared.

OSIRIS-Rex NASA will launch the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, designed to map an asteroid and return samples to Earth, later this year. The spacecraft will take roughly two years to reach the asteroid “Bennu,” which was selected because of the possible presence of organic molecules on its surface. Photo: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

For astronomers, studying asteroids is one of the few ways they can hope to glean how the solar systems and planets evolve. Unlike the rocks on Earth, which have, over its 4.5 billion-year history, become contaminated, asteroid material is pristine, giving us a glimpse of what the solar system was like in its infancy.

In addition, scientists expect Bennu to hold vital clues to the origin of water and organic molecules that may have made their way to Earth, eventually creating conditions needed for life to arise.

“In the visible and infrared spectrum, minerals and other materials have unique signatures like fingerprints. These fingerprints allow scientists to identify various organic materials, as well as carbonates, silicates and absorbed water, on the surface of the asteroid,” NASA said in the statement. “The data returned by OVIRS and OTES will actually allow scientists to make a map of the relative abundance of various materials across Bennu’s surface.”