Tag Archives: OSIRIS-Rex

OSIRIS-REx’s new orbit of Bennu only half mile high

OSIRIS-REx has moved into its next phase of research by lowering its orbit around the asteroid Bennu to only 2,231 feet above the surface.

Upon arrival at Bennu, the team observed particles ejecting into space from the asteroid’s surface. To better understand why this is occurring, the first two weeks of Orbital B will be devoted to observing these events by taking frequent images of the asteroid’s horizon. For the remaining five weeks, the spacecraft will map the entire asteroid using most of its onboard science instruments: the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) will produce a full terrain map; PolyCam will form a high-resolution, global image mosaic; and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) and the REgolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) will produce global maps in the infrared and X-ray bands. All of these measurements are essential for selecting the best sample collection site on Bennu’s surface.

The goal is to narrow to four the possible touch-and-go landing sites for grabbing a surface sample. They will pick the final choice in a reconnaissance phase now scheduled for the fall.

The present research phase will last until the middle of August, when they will raise the orbit slightly to give them a different perspective of its surface and the particles being released from it.

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On the precipice on Bennu

Truck-sized boulder on a crater rim on Bennu
Click for full image.

Cool image from OSIRIS-REx. The picture on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by OSIRIS-REx and shows a square boulder about the size of a 15-passenger van, precariously perched on the rim of a large crater on the asteroid Bennu. The picture was taken April 11 from about 2.9 miles distance.

This scale is human-sized. If that rock is a 15 passenger van, then the small rocks around it are about the size of a person and that cliff is about 20-30 feet high. I can imagine strolling down the slope to check out the cliff face, though I would make sure I gave a wide berth to the part of the cliff directly below that boulder.

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OSIRIS-REx moves into new science phase

The OSIRIS-REx science team has shifted the spacecraft’s operation into a new phase aimed at carefully mapping the surface of the asteroid Bennu in preparation for an eventual touch-and-go sample grab.

During Detailed Survey: Equatorial Stations phase, the spacecraft’s instruments will make the scientific observations needed to help the team home in on the best location on Bennu to collect a sample of regolith (loose surface material). To obtain these data, the spacecraft will execute a series of slews between Bennu’s north and south poles while taking observations from seven different stations above the equator. These data will be studied to understand the geology of Bennu. The spacecraft will also conduct searches for dust and gas plumes.

During this phase, planned to last through mid-June, they are asking for the public’s help in mapping the surface and its innumerable rocks.

For this effort, NASA is partnering with CosmoQuest, a project run out of the Planetary Science Institute that supports citizen science initiatives. Volunteers will perform the same tasks that planetary scientists do – measuring Bennu’s boulders and mapping its rocks and craters – through the use of a simple web interface. They will also mark other scientifically interesting features on the asteroid for further investigation.

The boulder mapping work involves a high degree of precision, but it is not difficult. The CosmoQuest mapping app requires a computer with a larger screen and a mouse or trackpad capable of making precise marks. To help volunteers get started, the CosmoQuest team provides an interactive tutorial, as well as additional user assistance through a Discord community and livestreaming sessions on Twitch.

Seems like fun!

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The temperature on Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team have released a short movie, compiled from data obtained in November 2018 as the spacecraft was first approaching the asteroid Bennu, that shows the dayside surface temperature and how it changes as the asteroid rotates.

I have embedded the movie below the fold.

Within a distance of only about 850 feet the temperature rises more than 270 degrees, from -99.67 °F to 170.33 °F. This change also occurs at every spot as the asteroid rotates. At dawn it will be that cold, and by noon it will be that hot.
» Read more

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Bennu from two miles

Bennu from two miles
Click for full image.

In late March OSIRIS-REx completed its fourth fly-by of the asteroid Bennu. The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken when the spacecraft was only 2.1 miles above the surface. If you were standing among these large boulders, we could easily see you.

The image itself shows the asteroid’s southern limb, and thus the shadows are accentuated. This makes it easier to see surface details. Though it is clear once again that Bennu is a pile of boulders and rocks cemented together and floating in space, the photograph also shows that it also has areas where the material is either much larger or fused together more solidly, as shown by the more massive sections in the left center of this picture. We might be looking a very large boulders peeking up from below the surface, or possibly this is the hint of some real bedrock.

The OSIRIS-REx team is continuing the spacecraft’s survey phase, gathering high resolution images in order to compile a detailed map of the surface, prior to planning the touch-and-go sample grab.

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Bennu’s cobbled equatorial ridge

Bennu as seen by OSIRIS-REx
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a new close-up image of Bennu, this time showing the asteroid’s equatorial ridge. The image on the right is that photograph, reduced to post here.

When the image was taken, the spacecraft was positioned over Bennu’s northern hemisphere, looking southward over the asteroid’s equatorial bulge. The field of view shown is 168 ft (51.2 m) wide. For scale, the bright, rectangular rock above the dark region is 8 ft (2.4 m) wide, about the size of a long bed on a pickup truck

Like Ryugu, the scientists for OSIRIS-REx are going to be challenged in finding a location smooth enough for their touchdown sample grab. That surface reminds me of some avalanche scree slopes I’ve hike across, where you’ve got nothing but rough rocks to walk on.

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OSIRIS-REx maps Bennu by laser

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a short animation showing a topographical global map of the asteroid Bennu, created by the spacecraft’s laser altimeter, dubbed OLA.

From Feb. 12 through 17, OLA made more than 11 million measurements of the distance between OSIRIS-REx and Bennu’s surface as the spacecraft flew less than 1.2 miles (2 km) above the surface – the closest orbit ever achieved by spacecraft. OLA obtained these measurements by firing laser pulses at Bennu and measuring the amount of time it takes for the light to bounce off the asteroid’s surface and return to the instrument. That time measurement is then translated into altitude data. Using this data, the OLA team created the 3-D model of Bennu’s surface.

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Global map of Bennu

Global map of Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a global map of Bennu, compiled from images taken in December.

The map is above. It was released with no commentary. In comparing it with this global map of Ryugu, created by the Japanese probe Hayabusa-2, I am struck by how much both asteroids resemble each other.

This fact is in many ways a first. Since the first planetary probes left Earth in the 1960s the one reliable expectation that has consistently proven true is that no planetary object, be it planet, dwarf planet, moon, asteroid, or comet, was going to resemble any other planetary object. Each has been entirely unique, and unique in very startling and obvious ways.

Ryugu and Bennu represent the first planetary objects that actually look pretty much the same. Scientist will of course be able to note differences, but overall these objects clearly belong to a specific class of asteroids, which in this case is the rubble pile.

In a sense, this similarity marks a significant advancement in our knowledge. Up until now, we had observed so few objects that our knowledge base wasn’t large enough to start seeing patterns within our general classifications of planet, asteroid, or comets. That is now finally changing.

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A rock on Bennu

A rock on Bennu
Click for full image (which is rotated 180 degrees).

Cool image time! The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a close-up image of the surface of the asteroid Bennu. The image on the right is a cropped and rotated section of that image, focusing on the image’s star, its largest rock.

The boulders on Bennu’s surface sport a variety of surface textures, from smooth, to hummocky, striated, and crumbly “cauliflower” in nature. The large boulder in the image center is ~92 ft (~28 m) across and has a somewhat round shape, though many smaller boulders surrounding it are very angular. Some of these appear to be fragments that may have disaggregated from the central boulder and display layering effects that may reflect some of the properties of their mineral composition. Other boulders show signs of surface exfoliation and fractures that may have been caused by impacts, mechanical weathering, and other forms of rock breakdown active on Bennu’s surface.

The image was taken from less than a mile away, and shows a spot near the asteroid’s south pole.

Why the larger boulder has a rounded look, but the pebbles around it are jagged, is a puzzle.

The science team also revealed today that they have detected plumes of particles being released from the asteroid’s surface. They have also found Bennu to present them with the same problem faced by the Hayabusa-2 team at Ryugu: The asteroid is far rougher than expected.

The higher-than-expected density of boulders means that the mission’s plans for sample collection, also known as Touch-and-Go (TAG), need to be adjusted. The original mission design was based on a sample site that is hazard-free, with an 82-foot (25-meter) radius. However, because of the unexpectedly rugged terrain, the team hasn’t been able to identify a site of that size on Bennu. Instead, it has begun to identify candidate sites that are much smaller in radius.

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A pond on Bennu

Pond on Bennu
Click for full resolution.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released new high resolution images of one particular area on Bennu’s northern hemisphere. The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows what they label a “pond of regolith,” seen as the relatively smooth area in the upper left.

This is not literally a pond, but instead is a low-lying spot where smaller particles have settled over time, producing a flattish area that looks, and in some ways, resembles a pond or puddle, only in this case the material isn’t water but fine-grained dust or pebbles.

On March 19 the science team will be presenting their initial results at a special session at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. That same day they will hold a press conference summarizing the most interesting aspects of those results. Stay tuned.

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Close-up of Bennu’s north pole

Bennu's north pole
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a very high resolution image taken of Bennu’s north pole region. To the right is the most interesting part of that image, cropped by me to show here.

This image shows a region near asteroid Bennu’s north pole on the terminator line between the asteroid’s day and night sides. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s MapCam camera obtained the image on Feb. 20 while in orbit around the asteroid from a distance of 1.1 miles (1.8 km). At this distance, each pixel covers approximately 4.5 inches (12 cm) of Bennu’s surface. The largest boulder, located slightly left of the center, measures around 52 feet (16 meters) across, which, for scale, is the length of the trailer on a semi-truck.

In other words, if this was a truck stop along an interstate highway, you could see the driver getting out of that semi to head inside for dinner.

The spacecraft right now is not doing much science work. They are in what they call the Orbital A phase of the mission, where they are in a very low orbit along the terminator line between night and day — generally a mile above the surface — and are using this orbit to give the engineering team practice maneuvering at such an orbit while they transition from using the stars to navigate to using landmarks on the surface.

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Orbital images of Bennu

Close-up of Bennu's southern hemisphere

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released two new images of Bennu’s southern hemisphere, taken from orbit. The image on the right is a cropped section of the highest resolution version of a montage of two images. Click on the image to see the entire two-image montage.

These two OpNav images of Bennu’s southern hemisphere, which each have an exposure time of about 1.4 milliseconds, were captured Jan. 17 from a distance of about one mile (1.6 km). They have been cropped and the contrast has been adjusted to better reveal surface features. The large boulder – fully visible in the middle of the left frame and in partial shadow in lower portion of right frame – is about 165 feet (50 meters) across.

The cropped section to the right shows that large boulder in the middle of the frame.

I’m sorry, but when I look at this rubble-pile asteroid I cannot help but think of the cat-litter clumps I remove from our cats’ litter box. The only fundamental difference is that the grains in cat litter are made to be a uniform size, while at Bennu the grains are much coarser and not uniform. Nonetheless, this asteroid is a clump of many grains, just like those cat litter clumps, and will likely crumple easily into a cloud of grains if smacked just hard enough.

This knowledge is actually very critical, as Bennu is a potentially dangerous asteroid with an orbit that might have it impact the Earth in about two hundred years.

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OSIRIS-REx’s first survey of Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a short movie of Bennu made up of images taken by the spacecraft’s navigation camera during its preliminary approaches to the asteroid from November 30 to December 31, 2018.

You can watch it here. Because this is the navigation camera, the view is generally from far away. Nonetheless, you can see that during the passes over the north pole, the equator, and the south pole, the asteroid’s entire surface became visible as the asteroid rotated. From this they will be able to use the images taken by the high resolution cameras to create an excellent detailed global.

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OSIRIS-REx moves into close orbit with Bennu

OSIRIS-REx has successfully completed an eight second engine burn to place it into a close orbit with the asteroid Bennu.

Now, the spacecraft will circle Bennu about a mile (1.75 kilometers) from its center, closer than any other spacecraft has come to its celestial object of study. (Previously the closest orbit of a planetary body was in May 2016, when the Rosetta spacecraft orbited about four miles (seven kilometers) from the center of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.) The comfortable distance is necessary to keep the spacecraft locked to Bennu, which has a gravity force only 5-millionths as strong as Earth’s. The spacecraft is scheduled to orbit Bennu through mid-February at a leisurely 62 hours per orbit.

There is a bit of hype here. Other spacecraft have gotten far closer (NEAR, Hayabusa-1, Hayabusa-2) but then retreated for a variety of reasons. What makes this different is the plan to stay this close while they compile detailed data about Bennu’s surface in preparation for touchdown to grab a sample.

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OSIRIS-REx flies over Bennu’s north pole

Bennu's north pole

Cool movie time! OSIRIS-REx has completed its first planned fly-over of Bennu, this time above its north pole, and the science team has released a short movie showing part of that fly-over. I have embedded the movie below the fold.

This series of MapCam images was taken over the course of about four hours and 19 minutes on Dec. 4, 2018, as OSIRIS-REx made its first pass over Bennu’s north pole. The images were captured as the spacecraft was inbound toward Bennu, shortly before its closest approach of the asteroid’s pole. As the asteroid rotates and grows larger in the field of view, the range to the center of Bennu shrinks from about 7.1 to 5.8 miles (11.4 to 9.3 km).

They have four more fly-overs of the asteroid’s poles and equator as they assemble a detailed map of its surface.
» Read more

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Comparing Ryugu and Bennu

Link here. As much as they are alike, which is not surprising as they both come from the same asteroid family, the article notes the surprising differences.



Both asteroids are also liberally strewn with boulders – a challenge to mission planners on each team, who hope to descend close enough to scoop up samples for return to Earth. “It’s certainly more rugged than we had expected,” Lauretta says. 

But while boulders on Ryugu look to be unpleasantly ubiquitous, Bennu’s terrain is more varied, with more-obvious places where a safe touchdown might be possible. And, Lauretta notes, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is only recently arrived.

“We have a long time to explore and make the crucial decisions about where to go,” he says.

The biggest difference has to do with water. Even though scientists believe them to be portions of the same parent body, which broke apart between 800 million and one billion years ago, Bennu appears to be water rich, while Ryugu is less so. Within a week of arrival, infrared spectrometers on OSIRIS-REx were finding evidence of water-bearing minerals, and not just in localised patches. “We saw this in every single one of the spectra we have taken to date,” says Amy Simon, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

One of the reasons Bennu was chosen as OSIRIS-REx’s target, Lauretta says, was the hope it would be rich in water, and possibly in organic compounds.

The similarities and differences in the samples both spacecraft will bring back will be most revealing.

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OSIRIS-REx finds evidence of water on Bennu

Bennu from 15 miles

One of OSIRIS-REx’s instruments has now found evidence of water on the rubble-pile asteroid Bennu.

Recently analyzed data from NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission has revealed water locked inside the clays that make up its scientific target, the asteroid Bennu.

During the mission’s approach phase, between mid-August and early December, the spacecraft traveled 1.4 million miles (2.2 million km) on its journey from Earth to arrive at a location 12 miles (19 km) from Bennu on Dec. 3. During this time, the science team on Earth aimed three of the spacecraft’s instruments towards Bennu and began making the mission’s first scientific observations of the asteroid. OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission.

Data obtained from the spacecraft’s two spectrometers, the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), reveal the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as “hydroxyls.” The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, Bennu’s rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.

The image on the right, reduced to show here, was created from 12 images taken on December 2, 2018 from about 15 miles. If you click on the image you can see the full resolution photograph, which is quite incredible. While the asteroid’s shape is approximately what was expected from ground-based observations and computer modeling, the giant boulder on the limb on the bottom right is about four times bigger than expected.

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Calculating Bennu’s future

In order to better constrain Bennu’s future fly-bys of the Earth, including the possibility that it could impact the planet, scientists will be using the data sent from OSIRIS-REx to better understand its orbit, its composition, its surface make-up, and its thermal properties, all factors that can influence its future path in space.

This is really important, as Bennu has a good chance of hitting the Earth in the future.

About a third of a mile, or half a kilometer, wide, Bennu is large enough to reach Earth’s surface; many smaller space objects, in contrast, burn up in our atmosphere. If it impacted Earth, Bennu would cause widespread damage. Asteroid experts at the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, project that Bennu will come close enough to Earth over the next century to pose a 1 in 2,700 chance of impacting it between 2175 and 2196. Put another way, those odds mean there is a 99.963 percent chance the asteroid will miss the Earth. Even so, astronomers want to know exactly where Bennu is located at all times.

The article provides a good overview of the difficulty of properly calculating Bennu’s orbit into the future, and how the data from OSIRIS-REx will help make those calculations more precise.

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OSIRIS-REx at Bennu

OSIRIS-REx has successfully completed its last maneuver engine burn to place it in proximity orbit around the asteroid Bennu.

The link takes you to the live NASA stream, which has been a bit hokey. This event is actually not that visually exciting, a bunch of engineers staring at computer screens awaiting data back from the spacecraft indicating that all has occurred as planned. In fact, some felt a bit staged, though the actual event was really happening.

The OSIRIS-REx team has released relatively little data so far, compared to most NASA missions. There will be a press conference in a week when they say they will release more information. I guess we will have to wait until then.

Update: the live stream has shifted to the docking of the manned Soyuz capsule at ISS, which is in itself a more riveting event than OSIRIS-REx’s last engine burn.

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Bennu from 85 miles

Bennu at 85 miles

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a new image of Bennu, taken by the spacecraft from only 85 miles on November 16, two weeks ago Its contrast has been increased to bring out the details.

The asteroid continues to remind me of Ryugu, a rubble pile of boulders with few smooth spots. I suspect the OSIRIS-REx engineers are going to struggle as much as the Hayabusa-2 engineers are in an effort to find a safe spot to grab a sample. The advantage however for OSIRIS-REx is that the main body of the spacecraft doesn’t have to get as close to the surface as with Hayabusa-2. They will come down only close enough for the robot arm to touch down.

Rendezvous is set for December 3.

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OSIRIS-REx unfolds its robot arm

In preparation for its December 3 rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu OSIRIS-REx successfully unfolded its robot arm for the first time since launch this week.

The website has a nice short video showing how the arm will grab its samples. Very innovative, and not what you would expect. The technique had to be clever because Bennu is so small and has such a tiny gravity.

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Bennu’s two hemispheres

Bennu's two hemispheres

The image above of the two hemispheres of the asteroid Bennu, cropped and reduced very slightly to post here, was created from several images taken by OSIRIS-REx on two different days last week.

These two super-resolution views of asteroid Bennu were created using eight 2.5-millisecond exposure images captured by OSIRIS-REx on two separate days. The view on the left is composed of eight PolyCam images taken over the span of two minutes on Nov. 1, 2018, when the spacecraft was about 126 miles (203 km) from the asteroid. The one on the right – showing the opposite side of the asteroid – was generated using eight images taken during the same two-minute time slot on Nov. 2, from a distance of about 122 miles (196 km).

The rock on the southern limb is the same in both images, merely seen from opposite sides. Bennu appears very similar to Ryugu, except that there do appear to be dark areas on its surface, possibly crater sites, that might be smooth enough for landing.

The rendezvous at Bennu will occur on December 3.

UPDATE: The OSIRIS-REx science team has now released a short movie showing Bennu’s rotation as imaged during this same time period.

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OSIRIS-REx snaps image of target asteroid Bennu

Bennu

OSIRIS-REx has snapped its sharpest image yet of its target asteroid Bennu, set for a rendezvous on December 3. The image on the right is that image, at full resolution but cropped.

This “super-resolution” view of asteroid Bennu was created using eight images obtained by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Oct. 29, 2018 from a distance of about 205 miles (330 km). The spacecraft was moving as it captured the images with the PolyCam camera, and Bennu rotated 1.2 degrees during the nearly one minute that elapsed between the first and the last snapshot. The team used a super-resolution algorithm to combine the eight images and produce a higher resolution view of the asteroid. Bennu occupies about 100 pixels and is oriented with its north pole at the top of the image.

It is beginning to appear that the OSIRIS-REx engineering team is going to have the same kind of problems now faced by the Hayabusa-2 engineering team. In this first glance Bennu appears very similar to Ryugu, a rubble pile shaped approximately like a box, rotating on one point. If so, they are also going to find it difficult to locate a smooth landing site.

Bennu by the way is in an orbit that makes a collision with the Earth possible in the late 22nd century. Knowing its composition, density, and solidity is critical for determining what to do, should that collision become likely.

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OSIRIS-REx makes second course correction

OSIRIS-REx, on its way to a December rendezvous with the potentially dangerous asteroid Bennu, successfully made its second course correction last week.

Rendezvous is scheduled for December 3rd. The probed will orbit the asteroid for about six months, then dive in to get a sample in July 2020, returning it to Earth in 2023.

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OSIRIS-REx to search for Earth’s Trojan asteroids

As it heads outward for a rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-REx will turn on its instruments for 12 days in February 2017 to hunt for the Trojan asteroids that likely orbit the Sun in the Earth’s orbit 60 degrees ahead and behind it.

Six planets in our solar system are known to harbor Trojan asteroids — Jupiter, Neptune, Mars, Venus, Uranus and Earth. Although more than 6,000 Trojan asteroids are known to be orbiting along with Jupiter, scientists have discovered only one Earth Trojan to date: 2010 TK7, found by NASA’s NEOWISE project in 2010. Scientists predict that there should be more Trojans orbiting Earth, but these asteroids are difficult to detect because they appear close to the sun from Earth’s point of view. In mid-February 2017, however, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be ideally positioned to undertake a survey of the stable point in front of Earth.

Over 12 days, the OSIRIS-REx Earth-Trojan asteroid search will employ the spacecraft’s MapCam imager to methodically scan the space where Earth Trojans are expected to exist. MapCam is part of the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite, or OCAMS, which was designed and built by researchers at the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

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