Astronomers recently discovered a never-before-observed miniature moon orbiting the Earth. What is it? Has it always been there? And could it impact Earth?
Kacper Wierzchos and Teddy Pruyne, working at the Catalina Sky Survey out of the University of Arizona, spotted something strange in the sky. Being scientists, they didn’t immediately assume that an alien spaceship had invaded our solar system and entered into orbit around Earth.
Over the next two days, the astronomers tracked the object and confirmed that the planet had picked up a hitchhiker of sorts. The object, officially known as 2020 CD3, turned out to be a space rock between 6 and 12 feet in diameter.
“Orbit integrations indicate that this object is temporarily bound to the Earth. No link to a known artificial object has been found. Further observations and dynamical studies are strongly encouraged,” the official announcement from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Minor Planet Center stated.
In other words, an asteroid was minding its own business when the Earth’s gravity pulled it in. And it won’t stay forever. This has happened before, with the mini-moon 2006 RH120 orbiting the planet from September 2006 to June 2007. Scientists predict that 2020 CD3 will probably stick around until April of this year.
Pruyne told CNN that, “Over the next few weeks, more observations are likely to come in. This will better help us understand the origin of the object, as well as a more accurate timeline of when the object came into orbit.”
The Earth and moon are unique in the solar system in that we only have each other. Most of the planets either have lots of moons or none at all. Here’s a rundown of the solar system’s moons.
According to Wierzchos, finding a temporary mini-moon is major news. “It’s a big deal as out of ~ 1 million known asteroids, this is just the second asteroid known to orbit Earth.”
The team at Catalina Sky Survey estimates that 2020 CD3 had been orbiting Earth for about two years before it was discovered.
If you were worried about 2020 CD3 somehow impacting the planet, rest assured that it won’t happen. Our temporary mini-moon will likely return to a heliocentric orbit next month.
Of course, there’s a small chance that it isn’t a moon at all. Given the highly reflective surface–the property that allowed 2020 CD3 to be noticed by the astronomers in the first place–some naysayers believe that it might be man-made space junk instead.
One conspiracy theory holds that the mysterious mini-moon is actually an alien construct observing the spread of the coronavirus. While that’s certainly far-fetched, it is interesting to note that this object managed to orbit Earth for years before we even realized it was there.
What else might be up in the sky, just waiting for our technology to become sophisticated enough to notice it?