- Photo via  University of Arizona -

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Published on Tuesday, November 16, 2021
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Science News

A near-Earth asteroid named Kamo`aolewa could be a fragment of our moon, according to a team of astronomers led by the University of Arizona.

Kamo`aolewa is a quasi-satellite, a subcategory of near-Earth asteroids that orbit the sun but remain relatively close to Earth. Little is known about these objects because they are faint and difficult to observe.

Kamo`aolewa was discovered by the PanSTARRS telescope in Hawaii in 2016. The name, found in a Hawaiian creation chant, alludes to an offspring that travels on its own. The asteroid is roughly the size of a Ferris wheel, between 150 and 190 feet in diameter, and gets as close as about 9 million miles from Earth.

Due to its orbit, Kamo`aolewa can only be observed from Earth for a few weeks every April. Its relatively small size means that it can only be seen with one of the largest telescopes on Earth. Using the U. Arizona- managed Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham in southern Arizona, a team of astronomers led by planetary sciences graduate student Ben Sharkey found that Kamo`oalewa's pattern of reflected light, called a spectrum, matches lunar rocks from NASA's Apollo missions, suggesting it originated from the moon.

The team can't yet be sure how it may have broken loose. The reason, in part, is because there are no other known asteroids with lunar origins.

"I looked through every near-Earth asteroid spectrum we had access to, and nothing matched," Sharkey said.

The debate over Kamo`oalewa's origins between Sharkey and his adviser, U. Arizona associate professor Vishnu Reddy, led to another three years of hunting for a plausible explanation.

"We doubted ourselves to death," Reddy, a co-author who started the project in 2016, said. After missing the chance to observe it in April 2020 due to a covid-19 shutdown of the telescope, the team found the final piece of the puzzle in 2021.

"This spring, we got much needed follow-up observations and went, 'Wow it is real,'" Sharkey said. "It's easier to explain with the moon than other ideas."

Kamo`oalewa's orbit is another clue to its lunar origins. Its orbit is similar to the Earth's, but with the slightest tilt. Its orbit is also not typical of near-Earth asteroids, according to study co-author Renu Malhotra, a U. Arizona planetary sciences professor who led the orbit analysis portion of the study.

"It is very unlikely that a garden-variety near-Earth asteroid would spontaneously move into a quasi-satellite orbit like Kamo`oalewa's," she said. "It will not remain in this particular orbit for very long, only about 300 years in the future, and we estimate that it arrived in this orbit about 500 years ago," Malhotra said. Her lab is working on a paper to further investigate the asteroid's origins.

Kamo`oalewa is about 4 million times fainter than the faintest star the human eye can see in a dark sky.

"These challenging observations were enabled by the immense light gathering power of the twin 8.4-meter telescopes of the Large Binocular Telescope," said study co-author Al Conrad, a staff scientist with the telescope.

How are you preparing for a giant asteroid to possibly hit the earth shortly? 
We would like to know your thoughts on this story. Send your comments to news@amcostarica.com

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