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Always wished we had a second Moon? Then you are in luck! NASA scientists from the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) on Mount Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii recently discovered a small asteroid that they believe has been looping Earth for at least a century. But despite its unwavering loyalty to our planet, the researchers have no intention of calling it a moon. Instead, they refer to the asteroid, which has been dubbed 2016 H03, as a “quasi-moon” or “near-earth companion.”
That’s because while the asteroid that is believed to be between 120-ft.(40m) – 300-ft.(100m) in size loops around Earth, its orbit is around the sun! However, since its path closely mimics that of Earth’s, 2016 H03 moves in sync with our planet. According to the researchers, it takes the asteroid 365.93 days (just 16.6 hours longer than Earth) to orbit the sun.
The scientists say that 2016 H03 spends half its orbit closer to the sun, than Earth. As a result, it zips past our planet during the initial part of the year. This pattern reverses in the latter half as the asteroid drifts away from the sun causing it to lag behind Earth. However, thanks to the Earth’s gravitational pull, 2016 H03 never wanders more than about 40 million kilometers (about one-hundred times the distance of the moon) from our planet. This same effect also prevents the asteroid from getting closer than 14 million kilometers (about thirty-eight times the distance of the moon) to Earth. As Paul Chodas, the manager of PDCO that monitors asteroids and comets that get too close to Earth says, the quasi-moon is caught in a “little dance with Earth.”
This is not the first time the Earth’s gravitational pull has dragged in a companion. About a decade ago, an asteroid dubbed 2003 YN107 had displayed a similar orbital pattern. However, it appears to have disappeared, at least from the observable vicinity. But NASA researchers say that will not happen with 2016 H03, which they believe is much more ‘locked-on’ to our planet. According to their calculations, this near-earth companion will remain Earth’s “dance partner” for at least another century, if not more.
While discovering the quasi-moon is certainly exciting, what is even more so, is that 2016 H03 could be an attractive destination for the first ever “Near-Earth Object” space mission. That’s because the scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) believe we could reach the asteroid in about 65 days. This means that astronauts could theoretically complete the entire mission in as little as 145 days — Something JPL researchers believe could be feasible in the near future. So watch out 2016 H03, humans may soon be making their way to examine you up close!
Resources: NASA.gov, slate.com