About 4.5 billion years ago, scientists theorize that the earth was experiencing an enormous impact with an object of Mars (called Theia). In accordance with the Giant Impact Hypothesis, this collision placed a considerable amount of debris in orbit, which eventually merged with the moon. And although the moon has since remained the only natural satellite of the Earth, astronomers believe that the earth occasionally shares its orbit with "mini-moons."
These are essentially small and fast moving asteroids that largely occur, with only one observed so far. But according to a new study by an international team of scientists, the development of instruments such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) would make their detection and study possible. This, in turn, will provide significant opportunities for astronomers and asteroid miners.
The study with details of their findings appeared recently in the Limits in astronomy and space sciences under the title "Earth & # 39; s Minimoons: Opportunities for Science and Technology". The study was led by Robert Jedicke, a researcher from the University of Hawaii in Manoa, and comprised members of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the University of Washington, the Luleå University of Technology, the University of Helsinki and the Universidad Rey . Juan Carlos.
As a specialist in solar cellular bodies, Jedicke has spent his career studying the orbit and size distributions of asteroid populations – including headband and nearby earth objects (NEOs), Centaurs, Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), comets and interstellar objects. Because of their studies, Jedicke and his colleagues focused on objects known as temporarily imprisoned orbiters (TCO). mini-mane.
These are essentially small rocky bodies – thought to measure up to 1-2 meters (3.3 to 6.6 feet) in diameter – that are temporarily gravity bonded to the Earth-Moon system. This population of objects also includes transiently caught flybys (TCFs), asteroids that fly over the earth and make at least one revolution of the planet before they escape from orbit and invade our atmosphere.
As Dr. Jedicke explained in a recent statement Science Daily news version, these features make mini-moons particularly difficult to observe:
"Mini-moons are small and move much faster over the sky than most asteroid surveys can detect: only one minimon has been discovered in orbit around the earth, the relatively large object with the designation 2006 RH120, of a few meters in diameter. "
This object, which measured several meters in diameter, was discovered in 2006 by the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), a NASA-funded project supported by the Near Earth Object Observation Program (NEOO) dedicated to discovering and tracking from Near-Earth. Asteroids (NEA & # 39; s). Despite improvements over the last decade in ground-based telescopes and detectors, no other TCOs have been detected since.
After reviewing the last ten years of mini-moon research, Jedicke and colleagues concluded that existing technology is only able to detect these small, fast-moving objects by chance. This is likely to change, according to Jedicke and his colleagues, thanks to the arrival of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a wide-field telescope currently under construction in Chile.
Once completed, the LSST will spend the decade investigating the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, detecting transient events (eg Nova, supernova, gamma ray bursts, gravitational illuminations, etc.), Mapping the structure of the Milky Way and mapping small objects in the solar system. Using advanced optics and data processing techniques, the LSST is expected to increase the number of cataloged NEAs and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) by a factor of 10-100.
But as they point out in their study, the LSST will also be able to verify the existence of TCO & # 39; s and track their paths around our planet, which could result in exciting scientific and commercial opportunities. As Dr. Jedicke indicated:
"Mini moons can offer interesting scientific and technological test fields in the near space, and these asteroids are brought to earth from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter through gravitational interactions with the sun and planets in our solar system." The challenge lies in finding these small objects, despite their proximity. "
When it is finished in a few years, it is hoped that the LSST will confirm the existence of mini-moons and will follow their orbit around the earth. This will be possible thanks to the primary mirror of the telescope (measuring 8.4 meters (27 feet) wide) and its 3200 megapixel camera – which has a huge field of view. As Jedicke has explained, the telescope will be able to cover the entire night sky more than once a week and collect light from vague objects.
With the ability to detect and trace these small, fast objects, cheap missions might be possible for mini-moons, which would be a blessing for researchers who want to know more about asteroids in our solar system. As Dr. Mikael Granvik – a researcher from the Luleå University of Technology, the University of Helsinki, and a co-author on the paper – indicated:
"At the moment we do not fully understand what asteroids are, and missions usually return only small amounts of material to Earth.Metorites offer an indirect way to analyze asteroids, but the atmosphere of the Earth destroys weak materials when they pass through. Mini-moons are perfect targets. to bring back significant pieces of asteroids material, shielded by a spacecraft, which can then be studied in detail back on Earth. "
As Jedicke notes, the ability to perform low-cost missions to objects that share Earth's orbit will also be of interest to the nascent asteroid mining industry. They also offer the opportunity to increase the presence of humanity in space.
"As soon as we start finding mini-moons at a faster pace, they will be perfect targets for satellite missions," he said. "We can launch short and therefore cheaper missions, use them as test fields for larger space missions and provide an opportunity for the beginning asteroid mining industry to test their technology … I hope people will one day be able to pull the solar system around the planets , asteroids to explore and comets – and I see mini-moons as the first stepping stones of that journey. "
Read more: Science Daily, Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences
Matt Williams is the guide to space of the curator of the universe. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.
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