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

The newly discovered asteroid - now called 2019 LF6 - orbits the sun every 151 days, or about the time between January 1 and the last day of May. The camera is used to survey the night skies for transient objects - stars that are exploding or flashing, as well as asteroids on the move.

Ye says he hopes the Twilight program will lead to more Atira discoveries, and he looks forward to the possible selection by NASA of the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) mission, a proposed spacecraft created to look for asteroids closer to the sun than previous surveys.

Previously, the same team, in collaboration with others as part of an observing campaign called Twilight, discovered another asteroid using this system. Earth's perihelion is 0.983 AU.

But 2019 LF6 is doubly rare because it is also relatively big, measuring around a kilometer across.

2019 LF6 is only the 20th IEO to ever be identified, but it's already the second IEO discovered this year. By comparison, Mercury orbits the Sun every 88 days, Venus' orbit takes 225 days and Earth orbits the Sun every 365 days. It's large, about a kilometre wide.

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Only two of the 20 known Atira asteroids are bigger, including 163693 Atira, which is almost 5 kilometres wide.

"Thirty years ago, people started organizing methodical asteroid searches, finding larger objects first, but now that a lot of them have been found, the bigger ones are rare birds", says Quanzhi Ye, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech who discovered 2019 LF6, in a statement. "Now that most of (the larger objects) have been found, the bigger ones are rare birds".

A massive asteroid has eluded astronomers because of its unusual orbit - until now. The off-plane orbits suggest that they were flung out of the plane of the solar system by coming too close to Venus or Mercury at some time in the past. Like the grooves on a vinyl record, most planets align along a flat disk.

"Both of the large Atira asteroids that were found by ZTF orbit well outside the plane of the solar system", NASA JPL research and Caltech professor Tom Prince said in the statement. The asteroid is expected to be around a kilometer in width, which makes it much more exceptional that it's remained hidden for this lengthy. This instrument is well-suited for locating Atira asteroids, which feature very brief windows for observation.

"Because Atira asteroids are closer to the Sun and warmer than other asteroids, they are brighter in the infrared", George Helou, an executive at Caltech's astronomy center said. But ZTF is also good at finding asteroids in general.

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