Astronomers Have Incredible Images of the Recently Discovered Mini-Moon… But It Might Be Space Junk

Photo credit:  Gemini Observatory/NSF's NOIARL/AURA/G. Fedorets
Photo credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF's NOIARL/AURA/G. Fedorets
  • Astronomers announced the discovery of a tiny object roughly the size of a washing machine that has been captured by Earth's orbit.

  • The mini-moon has been circling Earth for about three years, according to orbital trajectory calculations.

  • Similar mini-moons have been spottted before—once in 2006 and once in 2016 as the object entered Earth's atmosphere and broke up over Australia.

Update: Astronomers at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii have taken some incredible images of the newly discovered mini-moon. There's a chance that this mystery rock may not be a rock after all, but a giant hunk of space junk. Either way this is a very compelling object and needs more data to determine what it is, astronomer Grigori Fedorets of Queen's University Belfast, who was involved in the imaging, said in a statement. Additional observations to refine its position will help us determine this mystery object’s orbit and its possible origin.

Photo credit: The international Gemini Observatory/NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/AURA/G. Fedorets
Photo credit: The international Gemini Observatory/NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/AURA/G. Fedorets

On February 15, astronomers Kacper Wierzchos and Teddy Pruyne of the Catalina Sky Survey spotted a strange blip of light zip across their screens. "BIG NEWS," Wierzchos tweeted this week. That blip, he said, was likely a new mini-moon orbiting Earth. The washing machine-sized object has officially been dubbed 2020 CD3 (or C26FED2).

The tiny orbiting asteroid, according to Wierzchos's additional tweets, has a diameter between 6.2 and 11.5 feet and has an albedo, or surface brightness, similar to C-type asteroids, which are carbon-rich. According to orbital simulations created by astronomer Tony Dunn, 2020 CD3 has likely been circling our planet for about three years. Based on its trajectory, it's not likely to stay in Earth's orbit for very long. Astronomers predict that it will likely be flung out into space some time in the next month or two.

Based at the University of Arizona, Tucson, the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey is part of a larger effort, called the Near Earth Object Observation Program, to scan the skies for potentially hazardous objects. The astronomical network tracks the orbital paths of objects that may zip a little too close to home for comfort. These astronomers have the seemingly impossible mandate of identifying and tracking 90 percent of all objects in our solar system that are larger than roughly 460 feet.

On February 25, the Minor Planet Center, a branch of the International Astronomical Union—an international collaboration of astronomers responsible for, among other tasks, naming celestial objects—classified 2020 CD3 as a temporarily captured object.

This isn't the first mini-moon astronomers have spotted zipping around Earth.

On August 22, 2016, the skies over Australia lit up as an unusually bright meteor split apart overhead. Astronomers from Australia's Desert Fireball Network, who calculated the meteor's trajectory, posited last year that it might have been one of the few mini-moons that are likely circling our planet at a given time. Before that, evidence of these tiny satellites was sparse—only one other mini-moon was spotted by a team of astronomers in 2006.

Update: We've updated the article to include information about the object's trajectory. Sadly, it looks like mini-moon won't be with us for long. We hardly knew ye.

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