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

The newly discovered asteroid 2019 LF6 is one of 20 known Atira asteroids which move entirely within the orbit of Earth

On its aphelion, the portion of the asteroid's orbit farthest from the sun, 2019 LF6 moves beyond the orbit of Venus.

The orbit of asteroid 2019 LF6 (white) falls entirely within the orbit of Earth (blue). "LF6 may be very uncommon both in orbit and in measurement-its unique orbit explains why such a big asteroid avoided a number of decades of careful searches". This was the previous record holder for shortest orbital year of 165 days.

"Thirty years ago, people started organizing methodical asteroid searches, finding larger objects first, but now that majority have been found, the bigger ones are rare birds", he said.

By watching the skies at the brink of sunrise and shortly after nightfall, astronomers spotted a hunk of rock with the shortest-known asteroid "year" to date.

The newly-found asteroid swings way beyond Venus and at times during its orbit, it approaches closer to the sun than Mercury, which takes 88 days to complete a full orbit around the sun.

The asteroid was discovered thanks to the Zwicky Transient Facility, a high-tech camera located at the Palomar Observatory.

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"You don't find kilometer-size asteroids very often these days", Quanzhi Ye, the postdoctoral scholar at CalTech who discovered it, has said. Known as an "Atira" asteroid, its orbit falls entirely inside Earth's orbit, making it one of only a small handful of these objects ever discovered. The asteroid is expected to be around a kilometer in width, which makes it much more exceptional that it's remained hidden for this lengthy.

"Because Atira asteroids are closer to the sun and warmer than other asteroids, they are brighter in the infrared", says Helou."NEOCam has the double advantage of its location in space and its infrared capability to find these asteroids more easily than telescopes working at visible wavelengths from the ground".

The best time to look for Atira asteroids is during the twilight hours, around 20 to 30 minutes before and after sunset, when the camera can scan the vicinity around the Sun and not be blinded by its intense glare. Both of these asteroids orbit well outside of the plane of the solar system.

Finding an asteroid this large is quite rare.

Besides the Atira asteroids, ZTF has identified about 100 near-Earth asteroids and about 2,000 orbiting in the Main Belt, between Mars and Jupiter.

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