Small Space Traveler May Be a First

Rock the size of a Ferris wheel appears to be a long-lost piece of the moon in orbit around sun
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 15, 2021 9:07 AM CST
Updated Nov 20, 2021 7:00 AM CST
Small Space Traveler May Be a First
Stock image of Earth as seen from the moon.   (Getty/RomoloTavani)

(Newser) – It's not the first asteroid near Earth to show up in astronomers' telescopes, but this one appears to have a rare distinction. The rock dubbed with the Hawaiian name Kamo`oalewa seems to have come not from deep space, but from our own moon, reports the Guardian. Assuming the theory laid out in Communications Earth & Environment holds up, that would make Kamo`oalewa the first known asteroid to originate from the moon, notes Live Science. Kamo`oalewa is about the size of a Ferris wheel—not quite 200 feet in diameter—and is technically considered a quasi-satellite, per a release from the University of Arizona.

Meaning, it orbits the sun but stays relatively close to Earth as it does so. In this case, "relatively" means it comes within 9 million miles at its closest point, making it impossible to see with any but the most powerful telescopes on Earth. When first discovered in 2016 by a Hawaiian telescope, astronomers figured the asteroid had the usual mineral composition of asteroids. But the New York Times explains that scientists observing the asteroid during moments when it was lit by the sun found that it actually had the same makeup as the moon. The theory is that a long-ago meteor slammed into the moon and sent Kamo`oalewa flying.

Perhaps the only way to confirm for sure is to send a spacecraft to take samples. “Until then, we’re left with the possibility that, on our journey through space, we’re accompanied by the remains of a collision that punched a hole in the moon,” says Dr. Paul Byrne of the Washington University of St. Louis, who was not involved with the research. “And that’s pretty cool.” The unique name translates roughly to “wobbling celestial object" in Hawaiian. (A NASA spacecraft named Lucy is on it way to explore asteroids elsewhere.)

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