Science

A ‘planet killer’ asteroid with the potential to collide with Earth found hiding in the sun’s glare

A ‘planet killer’ asteroid with the potential to collide with Earth found hiding in the sun’s glare

The Sun’s glare has long hid a secret – a trio of space rocks with one member who could one day be dangerous to the planet. Of the three asteroids recently discovered by astronomers, two are so massive they’ve been described as “planet killers” — and one has the potential to cross Earth’s orbit, according to a new study.

The region between the orbits of Earth and Venus is often obscured by the sun’s glare, making it “notoriously challenging” for astronomers to observe what might be lurking in the region, scientists say. But recently, astronomers managed to get around the challenge by conducting surveys during two 10-minute windows at night.

And what they found was worth the wait. There were three hidden behind that glare near-Earth asteroidsmeaning that gravity pushed them into orbits that “enable them to enter Earth’s neighborhood,” according to NASA’s Center for the Study of Near-Earth Objects.

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Dusk observations with the US Department of Energy’s Dark Energy Camera at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory from NOIRLab in Chile allowed astronomers to spot three nearby asteroids (NEAs) hiding in the Sun’s glare.

DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva/Spaceengine


The three asteroids are named 2021 LJ4, 2021 PH27 and 2022 AP7. The first of the three is small and in an orbit that is safe and “completely within Earth’s orbit”. To date, only about 25 asteroids with this type of orbit have been discovered, astronomers said in a press release, because of the sun. The 2021 PH27 is also in this category, with one difference — it’s much bigger.

2021 PH27 is between 0.9 and 1.7 kilometers (0.5 to 1 mile) long and is the closest known asteroid to the Sun, according to Noir Lab press release, making its surface so hot that it can melt lead. There are “probably several more” asteroids of this size and type in the region, the researchers said in their study.

“Our twilight survey searches the region inside the orbits of Earth and Venus for asteroids,” said astronomer Scott Sheppard, lead author of the new study. “So far we have found two large near-Earth asteroids about 1 kilometer in diameter, the size we call planet killers.”

The third and final newly discovered asteroid is 2022 AP7, and unlike the other members of its trio, it has the power to cause a more powerful impact to the planet. This asteroid is larger than 2021 PH27, with a diameter of just under a mile. It’s an Apollo asteroid, which means it has orbit path this could one day force it to come into contact with Earth.

It is also the largest object potentially dangerous to the planet that has been discovered in the last eight years, the researchers said.

“Over time, this asteroid will get brighter and brighter in the sky as it begins to cross Earth’s orbit closer and closer to where Earth actually is,” Sheppard told the New York Times. “…This is what we call a planet killer. If this one hits Earth, it would cause the entire planet to be destroyed. It would be very bad for life as we know it.”

But planetary scientist Tracy Becker told The Times that such an incident in the “foreseeable future” was “extremely unlikely”.

And now the search for more asteroids continues using the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which uses high-sensitivity, high-performance technology to image large swathes of the space sky.

“Large areas of sky are needed because inner asteroids are rare, and deep images are needed because asteroids are faint, and you’re fighting a bright twilight sky near the Sun, as well as the distorting effect of Earth’s atmosphere,” Sheppard said in a press release. let go “DECam can cover large areas of the sky to depths unattainable with smaller telescopes, allowing us to go deeper, cover more of the sky, and probe the inner Solar System in ways that haven’t been done before.”



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