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Half-mile-wide asteroid found ‘hiding in our solar system’

11 July 2019

This image of 2019 LF6 was captured by ZTF on June 10, 2019.

The asteroid's orbit takes it beyond the orbit of Venus, and at times it comes closer to the sun than Mercury. Called 2019 AQ3, that space rock circled the sun every 165 days and held the title for shortest asteroid year, until now.

A massive asteroid has eluded astronomers because of its unusual orbit - until now.

Atira asteroids are designated as such as their orbit all entirely within the orbit of Earth.

"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.

Caltech researcher Quanzhi Ye says that finding kilometer-sized asteroids is rare.

Scientists spotted the unusual asteroid using the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, a powerful camera at the Palomar Observatory, situated in the mountains between Los Angeles and San Diego. The asteroid, known as 2019 LF6, orbits the sun once every 151 days. "Thirty years ago, people started organising methodical asteroid searches, finding larger objects first, but now that majority have been found, the bigger ones are rare birds", he said.

This is an interior-Earth object (IEO), or Atira asteroid, having an orbit that fits entirely within Earth's path around the Sun.

To find such asteroids, the ZTF team has been carrying out a dedicated observing campaign, named Twilight. That asteroid also turned out to orbit the sun outside of the solar system's plane. Because ZTF scans the sky so rapidly, it is well-suited for finding 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. 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. To date, it's found 100 near-Earth asteroids and around 2000 asteroids in the Main Belt between Jupiter and Mars.

The International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center listing for 2019 LF6 is at https://minorplanetcenter.net/mpec/K19/K19M45.html.

Half-mile-wide asteroid found ‘hiding in our solar system’