ESA’s asteroid discovery was made in December 2018 and was later confirmed by astronomers in France’s Haute-Provence Observatory. Based on Gaia’s treasure-trove of data, the ESA has recognised more than 14,000 asteroids in orbit of the Sun. The space agency charted all of these objects, including three newly observed rocks, onto a single image of the inner solar system. According to ESA, Gaia has a pretty good knowledge of most of the asteroids it has detected so far.
But every once in a while, a new asteroid will pop up and expand the agency’s database.
ESA said: “This is the case for the three orbits shown in grey in this view: these are Gaia’s first asteroid discoveries.
“The three new asteroids were first spotted by Gaia in December 2018, and later confirmed by follow-up observations performed with the Haute-Provence Observatory in France, which enabled scientists to determine their orbits.
“Comparing these informations with existing observations indicated the objects had not been detected earlier.”
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The majority of asteroids in ESA’s incredible picture are so-called main-belt asteroids, which zip around in the space between Mars and Jupiter.
These asteroids are marked on ESA’s chart in bright red and orange colours.
Further towards the burning heart of the solar system, are yellow orbits, which represent so-called Near-Earth Asteroids or NEAs.
NEAs are all asteroids orbiting the Sun from a distance of 1.3 astronomical units (au) or 120.8 million miles (194.5million km).
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Just one au measures around 93 million miles (149.6 million km) and describes the distance from the Earth to the Sun.
ESA explained: “The Earth circles the Sun at a distance of 1 au so near-Earth asteroids have the potential to come into proximity with our planet.”
The three new asteroids are marked on the chart in grey and are part of the main asteroid belt.
However, ESA said the space rocks have a greater tilt of 15-degrees or more when compared to the asteroid belt objects.
ESA said: “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.
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“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.”
Once ESA’s Gaia detects an asteroid hurtling through space, and its presence is confirmed back on Earth, astronomers study its orbit to determine if it poses any threat to the planet.
The space agency said: “This process may lead to new discoveries, like the three asteroids with orbits depicted in this image, or to improvements in the determination of the orbits of known asteroids, which are sometimes very poorly known.
“So far, several tens of asteroids detected by Gaia have been observed from the ground in response to the alert system, all of them belonging to the main belt, but it is possible that also near-Earth asteroids will be spotted in the future.”