Scientists from the University of Arizona at Tucson and the University of Central Florida are developing a plan to launch a spacecraft that would rendezvous with asteroid 1999 RQ36, collect samples and then return home so the team can analyze the findings. The project, named OSIRIS-Rex, is one of three finalists bidding for NASA’s space mission set to launch in 2016.

There’s been much interest in this particular asteroid because it has been predicted to potentially collide with earth in 2182.  UCF Physics Professor Humberto Campins said the possibility of a collision is small, but there are other reasons to focus on the asteroid, which has a mean diameter of about 560 meters.

“It may hold some of the building blocks of life — ancient molecules that existed before life as we know it began on earth,” said Campins who is working on the OSIRIS -Rex project. “And if we know more about it, we may be able to exploit it for resources such as fuel for a Mars mission.”

That’s why Campins has been studying RQ36 for years. This month Campins published an article tracing the origins of the asteroid back to the Polana family located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

“That’s a good piece of information because it provides clues,” Campins said. “The more we know, the more options we have. For example, in the unlikely event the asteroid threatens earth, knowing its composition and structure would help us devise an appropriate way of deflecting it.”

Campins findings appear in the highly ranked The Astrophysical Journal Letters .

NASA is expected to make its final selection for the New Frontiers program in late 2011. The selected project will become the third mission in the program. If OSIRIS-Rex is selected, it could make space history as the first mission to return a pristine sample of a carbonaceous asteroid.

Campins is an expert on asteroids. He received national attention in April when he published an article in Nature showing he had found evidence of water ice and organic molecules on another asteroid. This lends to the theory that an asteroid may have hit Earth and brought our planet its water. He’s also worked on several science missions with NASA and the European Space Agency.

Campins holds degrees from the University of Kansas and the University of Arizona. He joined UCF in 2002 as the Provost Research Professor of Physics and Astronomy and head of the Planetary and Space Science Group.