OSIRIS-REx, the spacecraft is on a mission to asteroid Bennu. Source: NASA

NASA spacecraft begins the exploration of mysterious near-Earth objects, Earth-Trojan asteroids. OSIRIS-REx, the spacecraft, is currently on a two-year journey to the asteroid Bennu. This spacecraft will spend two-weeks to search for evidence of these Earth-Trojan asteroids.

The position of OSIRIS-REx with respect to the Earth.
Credits: NASA

Trojan asteroids stay trapped in the stable Lagrange points. These points are stable gravity wells. They either precede or follow a planet. The OSIRIS-REx, is now currently travelling through Earth’s fourth Lagrange point. Located 60 degrees ahead in Earth’s orbit, it is approximately 90 million miles from Earth. OSIRIS-REx will capture this area using it’s MapCam camera. The mission team hopes to find Earth-Trojan asteroids in the region.

Scientists have so-far found several thousand Trojan asteroids with other planets. As of Earth is concerned, only one has been identified till this date. The Earth-Trojan asteroid is called, asteroid 2010 TK7. Astronomers predict that there could be more Trojan asteroids sharing Earth’s orbit.

The search commenced on Feb. 9, and will continue through Feb. 20. Every day, the spacecraft’s MapCam camera will take 135 survey images. The mission team at the University of Arizona, Tucson, will process and also examine these images. The plan not only includes capturing the asteroids, but also includes capturing the images of Jupiter. It will also take images of main belt asteroids 55 Pandora, 47 Aglaja and 12 Victoria, and also several galaxies.

The representative image of Trojan asteroids in the Jupiter belt.
Source: NASA-JPL/Caltech

One of the team members said that this search is a win-win situation. Even if it does not discover the asteroids, it will reveal the natural satellites and other potential hazards around Bennu. This will ensure a safe mission, reducing the risks for OSIRIS-REx when it approaches Bennu in 2018.

NASA takes the responsibility for the overall mission, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The team’s principal investigator is Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, which takes care of the mission’s observation planning and also processing. Also, the mission is in collaboration with Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, Goddard Space Flight Center and KinetX Aerospace. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama manages this third mission of NASA’s New Frontiers Program.