A lonely sentinel
completes another orbit in the void of space, daring to swing closer to the Sun
than even Mercury. Little do the denizens of Earth know, that one tiny
gravitational interaction between either Mercury or Venus, could send this
object on a collision course with the Earth.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…a large asteroid
just shot past the Earth, and scientists didn’t see it coming till it was too
Near-Earth asteroids seem to have a bad habit of creeping up
on us. They’re incredibly hard to spot. The asteroid in question was only about
130 meters wide, large enough to destroy a city.
event from 2013, where a meteor exploded over the Russian city of the same
name, releasing more energy than a nuclear bomb, shattering windows, and
injuring 1,000 people, is a haunting example of the real threat these objects
possess, and shows that, perhaps, the real danger of such objects doesn’t
necessarily come from the Oort cloud, or beyond the solar system, but right
within the inner solar system.
A world-ending asteroid was just recently discovered between the orbits of Venus
and Mercury just recently, measuring in at about 1 kilometer in diameter. The asteroid
in question was difficult to spot, being so close to the sun. But, by watching
the skies close to sunrise or shortly after nightfall, scientists utilizing the
Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at Palomar University were able to discover the
object. The asteroid, named 2019 LF6, is one of twenty objects dubbed “Atira
asteroids” and it orbits at a brisk rate of 151 days, the fastest orbital
period for any orbiting object that we’ve discovered so far.
“LF6 is very unusual both in orbit and in size – its unique
orbit explains why such a large asteroid eluded several decades of careful
searches,” Quanzhi Ye, the postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and the discoverer
of 2019 LF6, said in a statement.
Ye went on to explain that these objects are best observed
20 to 30 minutes before and after sunset respectively. Together with Wing-Huen
Ip from the National Central University of Taiwan, Ye’s discovered two such
Atira objects are fascinating because they don’t orbit
within the typical plane that everything else in the solar system seems to
follow, orbiting “well outside the plane of the solar system,” as Caltech
professor Tom Prince said in the same statement.
According to officials at Caltech, ZTF has also found around
100 near-Earth asteroids and 2,000 main-belt space rocks orbiting between Mars
The problem, of course, with objects like this is that
they’re so hard for astronomers to actually find. There’s no telling how many
world-ending asteroids like LF6 there might be. And, what’s more alarming, is
the particular orbit that this object takes. It crosses Venus’ orbit, and it’s
possible that LF6 and Venus could cross paths. If the asteroid doesn’t collide
with Venus, then its gravity could potentially change its orbit, maybe even
putting it on a collision course with Earth.
There are a few methods for dealing with such objects, so
that they don’t pose a threat to our planet, but with so many near misses in
recent memory, the question is, will we have time to even react when one comes