Astronomers find rare kilometer-wide asteroid with unusual orbit

The newly discovered asteroid 2019 LF6 is one of 20 known Atira asteroids which move entirely within the orbit of Earth

This asteroid is one of 20 known so-called Atira asteroids, a class of near-Earth objects orbiting the sun closer than Earth. "Like other asteroids, Atiras are leftovers from the formation of our solar system".

The orbital planes of both 2019 LF6 and 2019 AQ3, another Atira asteroid with a short year, are off-kilter from the plane of the solar system.

"You don't find kilometre-size asteroids very often these days", Quanzhi Ye, a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology who was on the team that helped discover 2019 LF6, explained on Monday.

2019 LF6 is one of only 20 known "Atira" asteroids, whose orbits fall entirely within Earth's.

According to the astronomers, the asteroid known as 2019 LF6 is a rare one due to its size and orbit.

The asteroid's orbit takes it beyond the orbit of Venus, and at times it comes closer to the sun than Mercury.


"Thirty years in the past, individuals began organizing methodical asteroid searches, discovering bigger objects first, however now that nearly all of them have been discovered, the larger ones are uncommon birds", Tom Price of Caltech describes.

2019 LF6 was discovered via the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, a state-of-the-art camera at the Palomar Observatory that scans the skies every night for transient objects, such as exploding and flashing stars and moving asteroids.

"Atira asteroids come from the main asteroid belt and find their way to their current orbits via gravitational perturbation by major planets", Yu told Gizmodo. Both of these asteroids orbit well outside of the plane of the solar system. The ZTF camera is extremely fast, which makes it suitable for detecting the hidden Atira asteroids, which have short observing windows.

It's hard to spot the asteroids because astronomers only have about 20 to 30 minutes before or after sunset to find them, Ye said.

Finding an asteroid this large is quite rare. Lots of them have long, elliptical orbits around our Sun, swinging via our system - generally making close passes of Earth alongside the way - across the Sun and then back out once more. Ye hopes his skywatching campaign will result in more Atira discoveries and that NASA pursues future near-Earth object projects like the proposed NEOCam mission, which is created to look for asteroids closer to the sun.

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