Are They Following Us?: Inside the World of Half-Moons

 

Half-Moons: There’s a pretty sweet idea put forward in Douglas Adams’ sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it’s this: maybe the universe is teeming with life, with aliens wandering around, stopping in intergalactic cafes. And they’re all just waiting for Earth to stop being a remote tribe of the universe and finally join in.

An artist’s impression of Earth’s half-moon, Kamo’olewa. (Image: Eddie Graham/University of Arizona)
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Can there be some truth in this? There’s certainly a lot more going on there than most Earthlings realize. For example, while someone might think they know exactly how many moons everyone in our solar system has… they would likely be far off the mark.

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Because, roaming out there, twinning with our various planetary neighbors, are still mysterious bodies called half-moons, which are not actually satellites, but come so close to being satellites that they can’t even be called satellites. Can be called.

For example, there is a half-moon called 2002 VE68 that has been orbiting Venus for about 7,000 years. It was observed in 2002 by Brian Skiff, a researcher at Lowell Observatory in Arizona. β€œIt was identified as part of a larger survey that Lowell Observatory was running from 1998 to 2010 to search for new near-Earth objects. It was one of many such objects found during the survey, and it didn’t seem special at the time,” Skiff says.

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In fact, it was treated as an asteroid.

Then, in 2004, an international team of astronomers led by Finnish astronomer Seppo Mikkola discovered that 2002 VE68 was not simply an asteroid orbiting the Sun. It was in somewhat of a dance with Venus, taking the same amount of time to revolve around the Sun as that planet, in a kind of distant orbit – circling along, much further away than the Moon, but then Is also influenced by the planet.

And so, Venus, which was thought to be moonless, is not so lonely after all.

Several crescent moons have been identified since this first one in 2002. They are not considered true moons, partly because of their weak gravitational link with the planet, partly because they escape that link and eventually fall out of orbit. And also because they consider the Sun as their primary partner, not the planet.

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There are currently seven half-moons on Earth. Most are relatively small. For example, the 2023 FW13, discovered in 2023, is roughly the same size as three large SUVs combined. The second, 469219 Kamoolewa, is thought to be a Ferris wheel-shaped piece of the moon, according to a study published in Communications Earth and Environment in 2021. It has a silicate-based composition, “with a redness beyond what is typically seen in asteroids in the inner Solar System”. The study said the closest match to the object’s physical characteristics were “lunar-like silicates”.

Could some of the crescents be fragments of a planet’s moon? Skiff says the working theory is that they could be pieces of any type of ancient space debris, like asteroids.

Researchers are now studying how they move around. For example, it has been estimated that 2002 VE68 was once a near-Earth object, before it was thrown by Earth toward Venus. It is expected to remain in its current orbit for the next 500 years. After that, it’s unclear where it might go.

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Skiff says, “We think that most of the half-moons originate from the inner part of the main belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and were probably thrown into cross-planet orbits after collisions between those bodies.”

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