Scientists believe there are asteroids flying around in Earth’s orbit, and we might be able to catch a glimpse of these soon. On Thursday, a NASA spacecraft just began two week quest for these mysterious Earth-Trojan asteroids.
The spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, launched last September, will spend two years journeying to the asteroid Bennu, over 1.2 million miles away. In the meantime, however, it’s searching for Trojan asteroids — trapped in Lagrange points, or stable gravity wells that precede or follow a planet.
OSIRIS-REx is currently traveling through Earth’s fourth Lagrange point, which is 60 degrees ahead in Earth’s orbit around the sun and 90 million miles away. The spacecraft will take multiple images of the area to identify Earth-Trojan asteroids and continue searching until February 20. Each observation day, the spacecraft’s camera will take 135 survey images.
This mission has the potential to answer two questions: if there is or was extraterrestrial life out there, and how to prepare for a catastrophe if an asteroid smashes Earth and destroys the world as we know it.
OSIRIS-REx’s cosmic mission has a seven-year timeline. Later this year, OSIRIS-REx will do a flyby of Earth, and once it reaches Bennu in August 2018, it will survey, map, and collect four and a half pounds of rock and soil samples from the asteroid. If this mission is successful, this would be the largest extraterrestrial sample since Apollo brought back moon rocks five decades ago and the first asteroid sample collected by the U.S.
As OSIRIS-REx travels outward into the solar system, its camera will also image Jupiter, several galaxies, and the main belt asteroids 55 Pandora, 47 Aglaja, and 12 Victoria. The spacecraft is set to return to Earth in 2023, when it will shoot back asteroid sample to the surface of the planet as it flies by.
So far, scientists have only identified one Earth-Trojan asteroid, called 2010 TK7. However, they believe there are more in Earth’s orbit. Fortunately, OSIRIS-REx will collect information that teaches us how to prevent an asteroid from slamming into Earth.