Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Strange Asteroid 2009 BD Stalks the Earth

Written by Ian O'Neill

2009 BD is approximately 400,000 miles from Earth (NASA)

The stalker watches us from afar. 2009 BD is approximately 400,000 miles from Earth (NASA)

A 10 meter-wide asteroid named 2009 BD discovered earlier this month is making a slow pass of the Earth, coming within 400,000 miles (644,000 km) of our planet. The near-Earth asteroid (NEO) poses no threat to us, but it is an oddity worth studying. Astronomers believe the rock is a rare "co-orbital asteroid" which follows the orbit of the Earth, not receding more than 0.1 AU (15 million km) away. It is stalking us.

On looking at the NASA JPL Small-Body Database orbital plot, it is hard to distinguish between the orbital path of the Earth and 2009 BD, showing just how close the asteroid is shadowing the Earth on its journey around the Sun

In 2006, NASA announced that Earth's "second moon" was an asteroid called 2003 YN107 (with a diameter of about 20 meters) and it was about to leave the vicinity of Earth, leaving its "corkscrewing" orbit around our planet for seven years, only to return again in 60 years time. 2003 YN107 was of no threat (and wont be in the future), but it is interesting to study these bodies to understand how they interact with Earth. Having NEOs in stable orbits around the Earth could be of benefit to mankind in the future as missions can be planned, possibly sending mining missions to these rocky visitors so we can tap their resources.

The orbital path of 2009 BD (blue line) (JPL Small Body Database)

The orbital path of 2009 BD (blue line) (JPL Small Body Database)

So far, little is known about the new 10 meter asteroid in our near-Earth neighbourhood, but it provides us with an exciting opportunity to track its laborious orbit to see whether it will eventually be ejected after making a close pass to the Earth's gravitational field (as was the case with 2003 YN107 in 2006). From preliminary observations, 2009 BD is projected to shadow our planet for many months (possibly years) to come. Until November 2010 at least, the asteroid will hang around the Earth, within a distance of 0.1 AU.

It is worth emphasising that 2009 BD is of no threat to the Earth, its closest approach takes it 644,000 km from us. For comparison, the Moon's apogee is 400,000 km, so 2009 BD is stalking us from afar, beyond lunar orbit.

As time goes on, astronomers will be able to track 2009 BD's orbit with more precision (for updates, keep an eye on the JPL Small-Body Database), but for now, we have a micro-second moon following the Earth on its orbit around the Sun…

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