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Updated Jan 4, 2014 - 2:50 pm

U of A heads to space in 2016 to investigate asteroid

This artist's concept shows the instrument deck of the OSIRIS REx asteroid sample and return mission. The spacecraft also has instruments that will measure anomalies in the astroid's movement and gravity. (NASA Photo)

The fate of Earth may rest in the University of Arizona's hands.

All drama aside, the Tucson-based institution is leading the OSIRIS-REx project, an unmanned spacecraft that will launch in Sept. 2016 to investigate a near-Earth asteroid.

Called "Bennu," the asteroid is the size of four football fields and is the "most most accessible organic-rich (carbon-rich) asteroid from the early solar system," according to NASA. They hope the asteroid will be able to shed more light on not just what the conditions were like at the start of our solar system, but also how life was formed on our own planet.

The project's acronym equates to a mind-boggling mouthful -- "Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer" -- and was named after the ancient Egyptian god.

"Osiris was formed from pieces scattered across ancient Egypt, where he awoke as the bringer of life and ruler of the underworld," Dr. Dante Lauretta, a professor at the university and the project's principal investigator, said in a press release. "Our spacecraft has a similar story -- it will consist of components fabricated in locations around the world, that once together, will allow us to connect with a near-Earth object that is an accessible remnant from the formation of our solar system." While the spacecraft isn't slated to reach the asteroid until 2018, Lauretta already hails it as a "pioneering effort, both technologically and scientifically," Lauretta said.

The OSIRIS-REx project will be managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., while Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colo. will build the spacecraft.

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