The spacecraft will return in 2023.

By Tessa Berenson / and
September 09, 2016
NASA via Getty Images

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NASA launched its first ever mission to reach and study an asteroid up close Thursday, in what they call a “huge milestone” in working to understand the origins of the solar system.

The spacecraft OSIRIS-REx launched from Cape Canaveral Thursday night and is headed towards the asteroid Bennu, which is the size of a small mountain, according to a press release by NASA.

OSIRIS-REx will approach Bennu in 2018, study the asteroid and take surface samples, and then return with the samples to Earth in 2023. Scientists believe asteroids like Bennu may have been a source of water and organic molecules for planets at the formation of the solar system more than 4.5 million years ago.

“Today, we celebrate a huge milestone for this remarkable mission, and for this mission team,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in the press release. “We’re very excited about what this mission can tell us about the origin of our solar system, and we celebrate the bigger picture of science that is helping us make discoveries and accomplish milestones that might have been science fiction yesterday, but are science facts today.”