NASA Mission To Hunt For Elusive ‘Trojan’ Asteroids That Share Earth's Orbit

First Posted: Dec 13, 2016 04:25 AM EST

NASA has reportedly said that its first asteroid mission, geared to return with an asteroid sample to Earth, will also look for the elusive Trojan asteroids that share the same orbit as planet Earth. At present, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is heading toward the asteroid Bennu as part of a seven-year mission that will study and bring back a sample of the celestial object for scientific research.

The OSIRIS-REx (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer) spacecraft will collect a sample from Bennu, a primitive asteroid, which will enable scientists to know more about the primordial solar system and how it formed more than 4.5 billion years ago. On the way to its destination, the spacecraft will activate its onboard camera suite some time during mid-February 2017 and subsequently start a search for the difficult-to-track Trojan asteroids.

"The Earth-Trojan asteroid search provides a substantial advantage to the OSIRIS-REx mission," said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator, according to a NASA report released yesterday. "Not only do we have the opportunity to discover new members of an asteroid class, but more importantly, we are practicing critical mission operations in advance of our arrival at Bennu, which ultimately reduces mission risk."

The Trojan asteroids orbit the Sun, making them constant companions of the solar system's planets. They stay near a stable point of 60 degree in front or at the back of a planet. Moreover, Trojan asteroids will never crash into their companion planet because they constantly lead or follow in the same orbit. Six planets in the solar system are known to have companion Trojan asteroids, namely Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. The Trojan asteroids that are the companions of the planet Earth are elusive. Until now, only one such asteroid, named 2010 TK7, was found by NASA's NEOWISE project in 2010.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be located at an ideal spot between Feb. 9 and Feb. 20 for it to undertake a survey, according to NASA. During the period, which is tentatively going to be spread over 12 days, the MapCam imager on the spacecraft will be employed to scan the space where the Trojan asteroid companions of Earth are expected to exist.

According to The Economic Times, many of the observations will be similar to MapCam's scheduled activities during its upcoming search for asteroid Bennu's satellites. This will make the search for Trojan asteroids a dress rehearsal for the mission's main scientific operations.

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