Scientists call it a high-five or kiss.
It’s the critical moment four years from now when a NASA probe, scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral before sunset Thursday, is expected to stretch out a robotic arm and gently touch the primitive asteroid Bennu, according to Florida Today.
If the five-second contact goes as planned, the arm will suck up at least two ounces of loose gravel and dust from the space rock’s surface, then store it in a small capsule slated to drop back down to the Utah desert in 2023.
The pristine material — to be the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo moon landings — may hold water ice and organic molecules like those thought to have helped seed life on Earth, and perhaps elsewhere.
“We’re going to an asteroid that represents the first building blocks of the planets in our solar system,” said Dante Lauretta, lead scientist from the University of Arizona for the $800 million mission named OSIRIS-REx. “We believe these hold precious organic molecules that were the precursors to life on the planet.”
The mission’s name is an acronym for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer.”
It is NASA’s first attempt to collect and bring back an asteroid sample, following a Japanese mission’s 2010 return of grains from the asteroid Itokawa.
A 189-foot United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is scheduled to lift off with the NASA probe from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:05 p.m. Thursday.
There’s an 80 percent chance of favorable weather during a nearly two-hour window at Launch Complex 41, which was undamaged by a SpaceX rocket’s nearby explosion a week ago.
Rocket: United Launch Alliance Atlas V (411 configuration)
Mission: OSIRIS-REx, NASA's first asteroid sample return mission
Launch Time: 7:05 p.m. EDT
Launch Window: To 9 p.m. EDT
Launch Complex: 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
Weather: 80 percent “go”