The Canadian Space Agency gave students in Calgary a peek into its joint mission with NASA to collect a sample of an asteroid and bring it back to Earth — in the hopes of uncovering "clues about the origin of life."

"It's difficult to land on an asteroid, [as] there's not much gravity," the CSA's Stephane Desjardins told a group of engineering students at the University of Calgary.

"So we're just going to go and slightly touch it, pick up the sample, put it back in a capsule and send a capsule to earth," he said.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission uses Canadian 3D mapping technology0:56

It will take seven years before the sample comes back to Earth — if everything goes according to plan.

The sneak peek into the cutting-edge technology is one of several Beakerhead events taking place around the city.

The mission, dubbed OSIRIS-REx, intends to collect a sample, up to two kilograms in size, from a 500-metre-wide asteroid named Bennu.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft launched Sept. 8. It will take two years to reach Bennu, where it will use a Canadian-developed 3D imaging system called OLA.


OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to leave Earth in 2016, arrive at Bennu in 2018, collect a sample from the asteroid and arrive back on Earth in 2023. (NASA)

OLA, along with thermal and X-ray data, will create a "complete picture" of the rock, allowing scientists to choose a safe spot to pick up a sample.

While this technology has been used on a previous mission to Mars, this is the first time scientists have combined a high-energy and low-energy laser in the same box, Desjardins said.

'Back in time'

"[OLA is] probably the most sophisticated laser that will ever be sent to an asteroid. That's the Canadian contribution," he told the group of some 800 students packed into the gymnasium at the University of Calgary.

Scientists will learn Monday whether the spacecraft survived the launch. That's when the first signal is expected back from the instrument.

After that, the space agency must wait another two years for it to reach Bennu.

"It's like going back in time and finding material that is unaltered since four billion years," Desjardin told the students.

"We'll learn a lot about the formation of our solar system ... and clues about the origin of life".

3D demo

To show off the 3D technology, Desjardin created a 3D map of the room using the instruments.

Within seconds, computers produced a 3D image, complete with hundreds of students sitting on bleachers, as well as the ceilings and dimensions of the gym.

CSA 3D image

A 3D image of the University of Calgary gymnasium, complete with students and presenters, created by the Canadian Space Agency's OLA laser altimeter. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

"That's some pretty crazy technology going on there," said engineering student Joshua Roberts.

The risks of the mission — such as software malfunction — were not lost on him.

"Getting an error message after two years would be pretty stressful. So you want to do a good job," Roberts said.

First-year engineering student Athena Manolakos said she was "very amazed."

"So interesting to see how far we've come and how advanced we are in our technology."

The federal government has pledged $61 million to the mission over the next 15 years.

In return for its contribution, the CSA will get four per cent of the asteroid sample for its scientists to study.

Bennu is a carbon-rich asteroid made up of material that is thought to be left over from the formation of the solar system and its rocky planets.

The Canadian scientific team for the mission is being led by Alan Hildebrand at the University of Calgary.

A public demo of the technology takes place at Telus Spark Thursday night and Friday from 1 to 3 p.m.

Chris Hadfield on asteroid mission4:18

With files from Evelyne Asselin