The Earth has one Moon, but it’s not the only rocky thing orbiting us…..

I spend far too much time at pub quizzes. Perhaps it’s because I’m an irritating know-it-all or I just like a vaguely intellectual pretense for going to the pub. One of the more geeky parts of it is correcting the quiz-master when they are wrong (Reykjavik is north of Helsinki and Blazin Squad did not do the original of Crossroads etc.). One such wrong answer was a week or two back when it was claimed the Earth has four moons. Additional moons of the Earth have long been claimed and were popularised a few years back when QI claimed that a co-orbital body called Cruithne was a second moon. As far as the definition of stable, natural bodies orbiting the Earth goes there is only one, although it would be entertaining if schoolchildren were taught about the wonderfully named Wahrhafter Wetter-und Magnet Mond (or veritable weather and magnetic moon). However there are sometimes other bodies that briefly orbit the Earth.

The Solar System is a crowded place. Besides the eight planets and numerous dwarf planets there are millions of asteroids. Some of these have orbits that bring them close to the Earth. While most of these whizz by us, some are in orbits which mean that they can gravitationally interact with the Earth and the Moon and go in to orbit around it. These orbits are not stable and the objects will eventually be kicked out of the Earth-Moon system.

To date only one known object has been discovered to have undergone such a process. Known as 2006_RH120 it is a small body, only 3-5m across. In 2007-2008 it undertook four orbits of the Earth at a distance more than twice as far away as the Moon. But how often do objects like this perform their temporary dance with the Earth? Well a new paper of has been looking in to the rate of capture and when such events happen.

The authors use a simulation of the how asteroids will pass through the Earth-Moon System. They select a series of objects with orbital elements in the range where they could possibly be captured and then examine how they would be affected by coming close to the Earth and Moon. Previously it was thought that a close encounter with the Moon gave objects a gravitational tug allowing them to be captured by the Earth. However the new model finds that while the Moon does play a role in the capture, none of their simulated near-Earth objects came close enough to the Moon to get a sufficient enough tug for capture.

The model also found that capture most likely at aphelion and perihelion (when the Earth is furthest and closest to the Sun during its orbit). The same capture probability peaks were previously noted for temporary satellites of Jupiter. It’s also possible that the Moon itself could capture asteroids and get its own temporary satellites. However no objects in the simulation managed to complete an orbit of the Moon.

Objects in unstable orbits around the Earth will of course have the possibility entering the atmosphere and becoming meteors. About 1% of objects in the simulation impacted on the Earth, none on the moon. This means that a temporarily captured object is 3.5 times more likely to strike the Earth than an near-Earth object in a similar orbit. In total the authors estimate that a tenth of one percent of objects striking the Earth were in temporary orbit around us.

In all the authors estimate based on their model and the fact there aren’t a large population of observable temporary satellites that at any one time there is one object of approximately one metre in size temporarily orbiting the Earth along with potentially other smaller bodies. So the Earth only has one Moon, but it’s not the only natural object orbiting us.

Granvik, M., Vaubaillon, J., & Jedicke, R. (2011). The population of natural Earth satellites Icarus DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2011.12.003

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