New image of Earth’s new mini-moon

Colored straight streaks of star trails, with a single white pinpoint captured in the center: the mini-moon
Earth’s new mini-moon – officially labeled 2020 CD3 – is the point source in the center of this February 24, 2020, image, obtained with the 8-meter Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. The image combines 3 images each obtained using different filters to produce this color composite. 2020 CD3 remains stationary in the image since it was being tracked by the telescope. The colored streaks are background stars. Image via international Gemini Observatory/ NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/ AURA/ G. Fedorets.

Astronomers have released the new image above of 2020 CD3, the new “temporary captured object” announced by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC) on February 25, 2020. This tiny object was apparently captured into Earth orbit three years ago. Now that more astronomers are trying to catch sight of it, they’ve released a new image and they’ve determined its fate. John Blakeslee, Head of Science at the international Gemini Observatory, commented:

Obtaining the images [see above] was a scramble for the Gemini team because the object is quickly becoming fainter as it moves away from Earth. It is expected to be ejected from Earth’s orbit altogether in April.

In what’s called a Minor Planet Electronic Circular – or MPEC, on February 25 – astronomers said that multiple observations had confirmed:

… this object is temporarily bound to the Earth … no link to a known artificial object has been found. Further observations and dynamical studies are strongly encouraged.

2020 CD3 was discovered on February 15 by astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey, based in Tucson, Arizona. More than 30 observations were made of the object by February 17, according to asteroid- and comet-hunter Kacper Wierzchos, one of its discoverers along with astronomer Theodore Pruyne. Those observations were needed to refine an orbit for the object, and to confirm it does appear to be orbiting Earth.

What we know about the object so far is that it is orbiting Earth, and that it is very small and faint. Sunlight reflected from it helps provide an estimate of its diameter. The estimate is about 6 to 12 feet (1.9-3.5 meters) at this time, but that could easily change. Still … it’s small! It’s amazing astronomers can identify something so small orbiting Earth.

If it is natural in origin – a captured asteroid – then it is only the second known rocky satellite of the Earth ever discovered in space other than Earth’s large natural moon. The other body, discovered in 2006, has since been ejected out of Earth orbit.

Much of the information we have at this time about the object comes from Wierzchos, who is actively tweeting about it; you’ll find him at @WierzchosKacper. The following tweets are from February 25. Apparently, these astronomers were holding off a bit in speaking openly about the object until the MPEC was published, but now they are telling what they know. Expect more info as the days pass!

Bottom line: Earth apparently has a new natural satellite – albeit a temporary one – captured into orbit around our planet three years ago. The object has been designated 2020 CD3.

February 27, 2020

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Deborah Byrd

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