A NASA spacecraft will reach out and touch an asteroid—and send pieces back to Earth, the space agency announced yesterday. The unmanned probe won't land on the rocky body, but it will get close enough to kiss the surface and extend a robotic arm to grab up to 5 pounds of dust and organic material. Asteroids are considered leftovers from the formation of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. Studying them could shed light on the conditions of the infant solar system and how life emerged.
Last year, a Japanese spacecraft became the first to successfully return dust from an asteroid. Scientists from the NASA mission said their target asteroid is more pristine. The $1 billion mission is slated to launch in 2016 and will take four years to reach the asteroid and begin its study. The sample capsule will return to Earth in 2023. The destination is an asteroid the size of five football fields across known as 1999 RQ36 after the year it was discovered. (Read more NASA stories.)