China is planning to launch a spacecraft to explore one of Earth’s nearest non-moon neighbors. The spacecraft will attempt to return a sample from that asteroid back to Earth before exploring a comet in the asteroid belt.
The primary target is an asteroid known as 2016 HO3, and it’s a very unique specimen. It’s known as a “quasi-satellite”: almost, but not quite, a moon. 2016 HO3 orbits the sun instead of Earth, but its orbit lines up perfectly with our own, so it never drifts more than a few dozen times as far away as our actual moon.
That makes it an ideal target for an upcoming Chinese space mission, tentatively scheduled for 2024. The spacecraft will rendezvous with the asteroid shortly after launch, collect a sample, then bring it back home to Earth. But unlike other sample return missions, such as Hayabusa 2 and OSIRIS-REx, China’s spacecraft won’t end there.
After bringing back the asteroid sample, China’s spacecraft will then continue on to the comet 133P/Elst–Pizarro in the asteroid belt. 133P/Elst–Pizarro is a perplexing case: It resides in the belt and thus behaves in many ways like an asteroid, but it has a tail like a comet, which means it’s probably not an asteroid after all.
The comet’s confounding nature makes it a perfect nut for China to try to crack. With luck, we’ll learn more about the early solar system and what our own planet looked like when it just formed. China is also inviting international space agencies to contribute scientific instruments for the spacecraft, so we could stand to learn all kinds of new information about our solar system.
Source: Scientific American
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics