Gaia Spacecraft finds 3 Asteroids

7 May 2019
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The Gaia spacecraft just did a bit of bonus science: While the European Space Agency (ESA) mission is designed to measure the positions and velocities of stars, Gaia recently found three asteroids not previously known to astronomers.

Asteroids are space rocks left over from the early solar system. Investigating them shows researchers what the solar system looked like billions of years ago, before the planets formed out of material around the sun. Gaia found these three asteroids in December 2018, and a ground-based telescope at Haute-Provence Observatory in France confirmed the find.

The three asteroids have unusual paths through space, ESA officials said in a statement. While the sun and the planets orbit in three-dimensional space, the orbits converge in a flat “plane” — almost like everything is orbiting on top of a solar-system-sized plate. Many asteroids orbit in the same plane as the sun and the planets, but the paths of these three asteroids are tilted — at 15 degrees or more — compared with the plane of the solar system.

“The population of such high-inclination asteroids is not as well studied as those with less tilted orbits, since most surveys tend to focus on the plane where the majority of asteroids reside,” ESA officials said in the statement. “But Gaia can readily observe them as it scans the entire sky from its vantage point in space, so it is possible that the satellite will find more such objects in the future and contribute new information to study their properties.”

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