Astronomers from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland have found that a recently discovered asteroid has been following Earth in its motion around the Sun for at least the past 250,000 years, and may be intimately related to the origin of our planet.
Details are here on the Royal Astronomical Scciety website.
Their work appears in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
The asteroid first caught the eye of the scientists, Apostolos “Tolis” Christou and David Asher, two months after it was found by the WISE infrared survey satellite, launched in 2009 by the United States. “Its average distance from the Sun is identical to that of the Earth,” says Dr Christou, “but what really impressed me at the time was how Earth-like its orbit was.” Most near-Earth Asteroids — NEAs for short — have very eccentric, or egg-shaped, orbits that take the asteroid right through the inner solar system. But the new object, designated 2010 SO16, is different. Its orbit is almost circular so that it cannot come close to any other planet in the solar system except Earth.
The researchers set out to investigate how stable this orbit is and how long the asteroid has occupied it. To do that, they first had to take into account the current uncertainty in the asteroid’s orbit. “Not knowing precisely the location of a newly-discovered NEA is quite common,” explained Dr Asher. “The only way to eliminate the uncertainty is to keep tracking the asteroid for as long as possible, usually months or years.” But the two scientists overcame that problem by creating virtual “clones” of the asteroid for every possible orbit that it could conceivably occupy. They then simulated the evolution of these clones under the gravity of the Sun and the planets for two million years into the past and in the future.
They found that all the clones remained in a so-called “horseshoe” state with respect to Earth. In this configuration, an object mimics very closely the orbital motion of our planet around the Sun, but as seen from Earth it appears to slowly trace out a horseshoe shape in space. Asteroid 2010 SO16 takes 175 years to make the trip from one end of the horseshoe to the other. So while on the one hand its orbit is remarkably similar to Earth’s, in fact “this asteroid is terraphobic,” explains Tolis. “It keeps well away from the Earth. So well, in fact, that it has likely been in this orbit for several hundred thousand years, never coming closer to our planet than 50 times the distance to the Moon.” This is where it is now, near the end of the horseshoe trailing Earth.
Currently, three other horseshoe companions of Earth are known to exist but, unlike 2010 SO16, these linger for a few thousand years at most before moving on to different orbits.
Click here to view an illustration of the orbit and also read lots more details.