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Thursday, July 09, 2020

Earth’s mini-moon left the planet’s orbit, but there will be more to come

Earth's temporary mini-moon 2020 CD3 has left the planet's orbit to revolve around the Sun. Astronomers say it was not the first mini-moon and definitely not the last.

By: Tech Desk | New Delhi | Published: March 24, 2020 2:19:09 pm
This artist’s animation illustrates a massive asteroid belt in orbit around a star the same age and size as our Sun. (Image: ASA/JPL-Caltech)

Last month, astronomers discovered a mini-moon — named 2020 CD3 — orbiting the Earth, making it official for our planet to have two moons. However, it turned out to be a brief affair of events as the mini-moon left the planet’s orbit.

2020 CD3 was first discovered on February 15 using the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey observatory in Arizona. According to the astronomers, the object may have entered Earth’s orbit three years ago. Bill Gray, an astronomy-software developer, told the Atlantic that the 2020 CD3 likely left our orbit on March 7. Based on the observations, astronomers believe that the mini-moon could be about 3 to 6 feet wide.

It is not confirmed whether 2020 CD3 was a small asteroid or a little chunk from our own moon, broken off in an impact with another space rock.

2020 CD3’s departure did not come as a surprise to the astronomers as it was following an unstable orbit around Earth, meaning it was travelling farther and farther away from the planet until it was able to break free from our planet’s pull. Currently, it is on its way to follow its original trajectory around the Sun.

The International Gemini Observatory / NSF’S NATIONAL OPTICAL-INFRARED ASTRONOMY RESEARCH LABORATORY / AURA / G. FEDORETS.

Other temporary moons around Earth

The discovery of 2020 CD3 is the second instance of astronomers finding a temporary mini-moon orbiting the Earth. In September 2006, astronomers discovered a near-Earth asteroid — named 2006 RH120 — about 9 meters-wide flying around our planet.

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The asteroid followed a path around the Sun, due to its close approach to the Earth and the Moon, it was temporarily captured by Earth’s gravitational pull, causing it to become the planet’s mini-moon for about nine months. The 2006 RH 120 left Earth’s orbit in June 2007.

More mini-moons to come

With the 2020 CD3 leaving the Earth’s orbit, astronomers believe it won’t be the last time for Earth to have a temporary mini-moon. “We’re continually in a transient ballet with small objects that are changing their orbits,” Michele Bannister, a planetary astronomer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, told The Atlantic.

“Sometimes, one of them will be on an orbit that is sufficiently close, exactly the right parameters where we can pick it up and dance with it for a while. And these short dances,” she added.

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