Saturday, 20 July, 2019

How This Huge, Superfast Asteroid Stayed Hidden in Near-Earth Orbit

ZTF Spots Asteroid with Shortest Year Boffins find asteroid with the shortest solar year of any space rock in our Solar System
Elijah Vega | 11 July, 2019, 13:12

This is an interior-Earth object (IEO), or Atira asteroid, having an orbit that fits entirely within Earth's path around the Sun. "LF6 may be very uncommon both in orbit and in measurement-its unique orbit explains why such a big asteroid avoided a number of decades of careful searches". "Like other asteroids, Atiras are leftovers from the formation of our solar system". ZTF looks for anything that's changing over time: not only stars that flash or explode but also asteroids that pass by, like the one described in a Monday (July 8) statement from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

In its orbit, the asteroid swings out beyond Venus and, at times, comes closer in than Mercury, which circles the sun every 88 days, according to the release. Most objects this large have been found already making the discovery of this sort of asteroid rare.

2019 LF6 was discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility, "a state-of-the-art camera" at the Palomar Observatory. Caltech researchers state that 2019 LF6 is only of only 20 known "Atira" asteroids that have an orbit that falls completely within that of the Earth. The newfound space rock, measuring a kilometer wide, circles the sun once every 151 days.

"This suggests that sometime in the past they were flung out of the plane of the solar system because they came too close to Venus or Mercury", said Tom Prince, a Caltech physics professor and scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.

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"Atira asteroids come from the main asteroid belt and find their way to their current orbits via gravitational perturbation by major planets", Yu told Gizmodo. What they mean by "year" is the time it takes the asteroid to complete a full orbit around the sun. The ZTF camera is extremely fast, which makes it suitable for detecting the hidden Atira asteroids, which have short observing windows.

"We only have about 20 to 30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset to find these asteroids", Ye said.

"NEOCam has the double advantage of its location in space and its infrared capability to find these asteroids more easily than telescopes working at visible wavelengths from the ground", he added. The ZTF is responsible for scanning the skies for transient objects that can be anything from exploding stars to asteroids and, because it's capable of scanning the sky quite fast, it's ideal for finding the "Atira" asteroids, which usually only have 20 to 30-minute observation windows.

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