After the resounding success of its Chang’e-4 lunar probe, which, in January, became the first man-made craft to ever land on the far side of the moon, China is gearing up for an even more daring space mission. The nation is now planning to send a spacecraft further out into space on a very ambitious quest to study both an asteroid and a comet, Space is reporting.
Launching in 2022, the new robotic mission – which has yet to receive a name – has set its sights on a small near-Earth asteroid and a peculiar comet in the asteroid belt. According to an announcement made earlier this week by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the mission will be targeting the rather famous asteroid 2016 HO3 and the intriguing Comet 133P/Elst-Pizarro.
The upcoming space exploration endeavor is expected to last for 10 years and intends to collect and retrieve a sample from the asteroid, then move on to exploring the comet and studying its environment “and the potential water and organic materials on it,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency unveiled in a news release on Thursday.
As Xinhua pointed out, the mission envisions sending a probe “to fly around asteroid 2016HO3 and then land on it to collect samples.”
“Then the probe will fly back to the proximity of Earth, and a return capsule will be released to bring the samples back to Earth,” noted Xinhua, citing CNSA official Liu Jizhong, the director of China’s Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center.
Once that part of the mission is concluded, the spacecraft “will continue its journey” further out into space, aiming for the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
“With the assistance of the gravity of Earth and Mars, it will finally arrive at the main asteroid belt and orbit the Comet 133P to explore it.”
While the mission in itself is a bold one, to say the least, the two celestial bodies chosen for exploration are particularly intriguing. For one thing, asteroid 2016 HO3 boasts an unusual orbit that has turned it into a constant companion of planet Earth – or a “quasi-satellite,” as noted by NASA.
Also known as Kamo’oalewa, the space rock made headlines in 2016, when it was first spotted, after astronomers discovered that it circles the Earth, as both the asteroid and our planet voyage together around the sun.
“Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come,” Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), said in a statement issued at the time.
Estimated to measure between 120 feet and 300 feet across, the asteroid never wanders too far from Earth – or too close, for that matter – and circles the planet from a distance of 38 times to 100 times that of the distance between Earth and the moon.
In 2022, when China plans to launch its asteroid-sampling mission, the space rock will come within 12.6 million miles of the planet’s surface in late October, shows NASA.
Meanwhile, Comet 133P is what scientists consider an oddball. Described as a “main-belt comet,” this icy object belongs to a special and rare class of hybrids that dwell among asteroids, but exhibit comet-like traits, notes Space.
This curious celestial body displays characteristics of both asteroids and comets; it orbits within the asteroid belt, but has a dust tail just like a comet. For this reason, it has been classified as an “active asteroid,” receiving both a comet and an asteroid designation — its asteroid name is 7968 Elst-Pizarro.
Aside from snagging asteroid samples for analysis, the new robotic mission currently in the works for the CNSA aims to gather as much data as possible on the two celestial bodies in the hopes of gleaning out their age, shape, size, composition, structure, orbit, rotation, and thermal radiation, among other characteristics.