NASA's robotic spacecraft Osiris-REx will be donning a detective's hat from Feb. 9 to Feb. 20 to search for asteroids lurking in the Earth's orbit around the sun.
The special gig of the probe comes in the midst of its journey to asteroid Bennu with a plan to collect rock samples from the massive asteroid and bring them to Earth for analysis.
Launched in September 2016, the core mission of Osiris-REx is to put itself into orbit around asteroid Bennu for a two-year study.
Osiris-REx will be tracking asteroids at Lagrange points, where the combined gravitational forces of the sun and Earth balance out, allowing for asteroids and similar objects to swarm around in potentially stable orbits.
NASA will also be taking advantage of these regions by positioning the James Webb Space Telescope at a Lagrange point a million miles away from Earth.
Collectively these asteroids sharing an orbit with Earth are called Earth Trojans. To tracking such asteroids, the probe will use its sensitive cameras to monitor the front and back positions of Earth's orbit while the planet orbits the sun. Trojan swarms have also been spotted near Mars, Venus, Uranus, and Neptune.
Currently, Osiris-REx is nearly 74 million miles away from Earth. In the seven-year course of the journey to asteroid Bennu and back, Osiris-Rex will be collecting rock samples from the huge asteroid for analysis.
The last Trojan asteroid was discovered in 2010 by the WISE telescope of NASA in 2010, when it found 2010 TK-7, orbiting 60 degrees ahead of Earth with a size of 1,000 feet.
Commenting on the policing of Earth's orbit for Trojan asteroids and swarms, Osiris-REx lead scientist Dante Lauretta said it would be a fascinating thing to discover.
"The Earth-Trojan asteroid search provides a substantial advantage to the Osiris-REx mission," said Dante Lauretta, who is attached to the University of Arizona in Tucson.
"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," he explained.
The detective job will also enable the probe to use it as a trial to ensure its safe arrival at the asteroid Bennu in 2018. The mission is important as asteroids-turned-meteorites have bestowed Earth many essential elements for life. The samples coming from Bennu would be helping scientists understand the origins of the solar system as well as the beginning of life on Earth.
The probe recently completed its first Deep Space Maneuver, DSM-1 on Dec. 28. The tracking data of Osiris-REx was relayed by its Deep Space Network to NASA, confirming the success of the maneuver.
"DSM-1 was our first major trajectory change and first use of the main engines, so it's good to have that under our belts and be on a safe trajectory to Bennu," said Arlin Bartels, deputy project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The spacecraft has now ramped up the speed by 964 miles per hour. A recent course correction maneuver put it on track for a flyby of Earth in September, during which the planet's gravity will catapult it toward Bennu. Osiris-REx is expected to meet the asteroid in the fall of 2018.
As noted, the mandate is to orbit the asteroid many months and do a flyby to collect material from the surface of Bennu using a robotic arm. It will be back on Earth by 2023.