Washington: NASA said its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has started a two-week search for an enigmatic class of near-Earth objects known as Earth-Trojan asteroids.
The mission, currently on a two-year outbound journey to the asteroid Bennu, will spend almost two weeks searching for evidence of these small bodies, the US space agency said on Thursday.
Although scientists have discovered thousands of Trojan asteroids accompanying other planets, only one Earth-Trojan has been identified to date, asteroid 2010 TK7.
Scientists predict that there should be more Trojans sharing Earth’s orbit but they are difficult to detect from Earth as they appear near the sun on the Earth’s horizon.
“So this search gives us a unique opportunity to explore the primordial building blocks of Earth,” said principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Trojan asteroids are trapped in stable gravity wells, called Lagrange points, which precede or follow a planet.
Launched on September 8, 2016, OSIRIS-REx is currently travelling through Earth’s fourth Lagrange point, which is located 60 degrees ahead in Earth’s orbit around the sun, about 150 million km from Earth.
The mission team will use this opportunity to take multiple images of the area with the spacecraft’s MapCam camera in the hope of identifying Earth-Trojan asteroids in the region.
“Because the Earth’s fourth Lagrange point is relatively stable, it is possible that remnants of the material that built Earth are trapped within it,” Lauretta said.
The operations involved in searching for Earth-Trojan asteroids closely resemble those required to search for natural satellites and other potential hazards around Bennu when the spacecraft approaches its target in 2018, NASA said.
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