For the first time ever, NASA will launch the OSIRIS-REx, an unmanned robotic spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016 to collect "pristine" space rock samples. It's going to be a tough mission because of the weird gravity fields asteroids have, but the samples could provide valuable info on how planets formed.
In what feels like a very sci-fi-ish mission, the OSIRIS-REx will first map asteroid 1999 RQ36 from a three-mile distance for six months. As soon as the asteroid is completely mapped, the 'bot will move within six feet of the asteroid where "a robotic arm will then deploy, reaching out to first blast the asteroid surface with nitrogen gas so a device, which resembles a car air filter, on the end of the arm can scoop up more than 2 ounces of the loosened material."
Once the space rock samples are safely stored, OSIRIS-REx will fly back to Earth, dump the collected goodies, then head to orbit the sun and carry out other space missions. Scientists will then pick up the uncontaminated asteroid samples (most meteorite samples lose 99% of their mass — pretty much the part that contains the most important info on Earth's water and organic molecules) and study them for two years.
So why go through the trouble of studying raw asteroid rock? Well, firstly, scientists believe that they may contain planet and star-forming material, which would "provide a snapshot of our solar system's infancy." Secondly, the mission will also help NASA learn how to better track the orbits of asteroids in the future. You know, to make sure we can blow one up with our powerful missiles before its hits us and wipes us out, like it did dinosaurs.
The $800 million mission is expected to take nearly seven years. Launch is scheduled for 2016, with the robot reaching the asteroid by 2020, and not returning to Earth until 2023. I guess we'll just have to wait and see if our astronomy textbooks get rewritten in the next decade.