Sunday, August 7, 2011

August 7, 2011 : Cruithne


3753 Cruithne is an asteroid in orbit around the Sun in approximate 1:1 orbital resonance with the Earth. It is a periodic inclusion planetoid orbiting the Sun in an apparent horseshoe orbit. It has been incorrectly called "Earth's second moon", but it is only a quasi-satellite.

Cruithne was discovered on October 10, 1986, by Duncan Waldron on a photographic plate taken with the UK Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, Coonabarabran, Australia. The 1983 apparition (1983 UH) is credited to Giovanni de Sanctis and Richard M. West of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. It was not until 1997 that its unusual orbit was determined by Paul Wiegert and Kimmo Innanen, working at York University in Toronto, and Seppo Mikkola, working at the University of Turku in Finland.

The asteroid is named after the Cruithne or Cruthin, a people of early medieval Ireland.

Cruithne is in a normal elliptic orbit around the Sun. Its period of revolution around the Sun, approximately 364 days at present, is almost equal to that of the Earth. Because of this, Cruithne and Earth appear to "follow" each other in their paths around the Sun. This is why Cruithne is sometimes called "Earth's second moon". However, it does not orbit the Earth and is not a moon. In 2058, Cruithne will come within 0.09 AU (13.6 million kilometres) of Mars. Cruithne's distance from the Sun and orbital speed vary a lot more than the Earth's, so from the Earth's point of view Cruithne actually follows a kidney bean-shaped horseshoe orbit ahead of the Earth, taking slightly less than one year to complete a circuit of the "bean". Because it takes slightly less than a year, the Earth "falls behind" the bean a little more each year, and so from our point of view, the circuit is not quite closed, but rather like a spiral loop that moves slowly away from the Earth.

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