Dr. John S. Lewis, chief scientist at Deep Space Industries, introduces us to our newly-discovered orbital companion, near-Earth asteroid 2016 HO3.
Meet near-Earth asteroid 2016 HO3.
2016 HO3 is the newly-discovered “quasi-satellite” that NASA scientists say has been locked in a celestial dance with Earth for more than a century and will continue to be for centuries to come.
With a width of only 40–100 meters and an average distance from Earth of 26.5 million kilometers, this curious companion was detected on April 27, 2016 by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
As 2016 HO3 orbits the sun it also appears to revolve around the Earth, making it the best example of a quasi-satellite we’ve detected so far. Sometimes speeding ahead, sometimes lagging behind, and always with a little tilt, 2016 HO3 seems to be caught in a sort of orbital dance with Earth (see infographic).
“While 2016 HO3 is a highly accessible asteroid in terms of the energy needed to get to it”, explains Dr. John S. Lewis, chief scientist at DSI and the man who wrote the book on asteroid mining, “its composition is a complete unknown.”
“Statistically, it is likely to contain metallic grains of iron-nickel-cobalt alloy, and is unlikely to be rich in volatiles such as hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen. We need astronomers to measure its spectrum and tell us what it’s made of.”
It turns out that bodies whose orbits around the Sun keep them near Earth for prolonged periods of time — in this case, for centuries — are rare. “Their orbits are relatively short-lived. Dogs that run circles around slow-moving cars have the same problem,” Dr. Lewis comments.
As to how 2016 HO3 showed up to the dance with Earth in the first place, Dr. Lewis explains that, “It’s quite possible for an asteroid to wander into such an ‘Earth-resonant’ orbit, but these arrangements are delicate and can be easily disturbed.” A resonant orbit is a 1:1 proposition, and in this case it means that 2016 HO3 has the same orbital period as Earth; one year.
“Resonant orbits are also known for Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, but those bodies collect mostly in two co-orbital clumps 60 degrees ahead of and behind their resonant planets”, says Dr. Lewis. “Bodies in ‘virtual orbits’ like 2016 HO3 are probably very rare because they are so easily disturbed.”
Defying common sense, the bond holding 2016 HO3 to Earth is purely mathematical, not physical, according to Dr. Lewis. “It’s a fluke of timing, and Earth’s gravity is almost irrelevant. A collision with even a tiny space rock can disrupt the dance and send the rock to a collision with Earth or, more likely, send it off to be ‘lost in space.’”
But there’s an upside to the delicate dance with our curious companion.
“The good news is that if 2016 HO3 turns out to be made of useful materials, it will be a convenient source for supplying the space industry with valuable resources.”
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