RD-180 Program Powers Launch to Sample Giant Asteroid

Pratt & Whitney and Energomash have come together yet again, as joint venture RD AMROSS, to power a successful RD-180 rocket launch, this time to collect samples from an asteroid that is as old as the earth and wider than the Empire State Building is tall.

Earlier this month, RD-180 Engine 61T launched OSIRIS-REx toward a ring of miniature planets between Mars and Jupiter, using approximately 860,000 pounds of thrust — more than 20 times the amount produced by an F135 engine.

"Rocket propulsion has proven to be a very challenging business, and recent events continue to demonstrate this," said Robert vanGiessen, chief engineer on the RD-180 program, in an address to the team. "Congratulations on our success and thank you for making it look easy."

In about two years, OSIRIS-REx will reach the asteroid, named Bennu, where it will probe and study the surface before touching down to capture a 60g sample from the surface.

NASA predicts OSIRIS-REx will begin its journey back to earth in March 2021 and will land in the Utah desert on Sept. 24, 2023, bringing a swath of information about asteroid formation with it. By mission's end, OSIRIS-REx will have traveled 4.4 billion miles.

The September launch was the 71st RD-180 launch for RD AMROSS. Other successful RD-180-powered rocket launches have included missions to the moon, the sun, and even Mars, Jupiter and Pluto.