It’s easy to be brand loyal to the moon. We’ve only got the one, after all, unlike Jupiter and Saturn, where you’d have dozens to choose from. Here, it’s luna or nada. But it’s not. The fact is, there’s another sorta, kinda moon in a sorta, kinda orbit around Earth that was discovered only in 2016. According to new research in NatureWe might finally understand how the structure was created.
The quasi-moon—named Kamo’oalewa, after a Hawaiian word that refers to a moving celestial object—is not much to speak of, measuring less than 50 m (164 ft) across. The orbit of the moon is corkscrew-like and circles Earth at 40 to 100 km/239,000 miles. Distance to our familiar moon. Its odd flight path is caused by the competing gravitational pulls of the Earth and the sun, which continually bend and torque the moonlet’s motions, preventing it from achieving a more conventional orbit.
“It’s primarily influenced just by the sun’s gravity, but this pattern shows up because it’s also—but not quite—on an Earth-like orbit. So it’s this sort of odd dance,” says graduate student Ben Sharkey of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, the lead author of the paper.
None of this means that Kamo’oalewa has to have especially exotic origins. The solar system is littered with asteroids, some of which are captured by the gravity of other planets and become more conventional—if fragmentary—moons. Others don’t orbit other planets in the common way but fall into line in front of them or behind them and pace them in their orbits around the sun, like the flocks of so-called Trojan asteroids that precede and trail Jupiter.
Either way, Kamo’oalewa was bound to get attention because its composition posed a stubborn mystery. Asteroids tend to reflect brightly in certain infrared frequencies, but Kamo’oalewa just doesn’t. It’s dimmer somehow—clearly made of different stuff, which suggests a different origin.
Sharkey sought to solve the mystery under Vishnu Reddy’s guidance as he was a PhD student. The infrared signature was too weak to be detected by the reliable telescope. Instead they switched to a University of Arizona-run monocular telescope that, as Sharkey says, could “squeeze every last ounce of photons out of that object.”
Although they produced clearer and better results, the data were still incomplete. While the rock had common silicates similar to other asteroids like them, their commonality was only in their general composition and not their infrared signature. This difference remained inexplicable.
Finally, we found the right answer. If Kamo’oalewa was behaving like a sort of quasi-moon, perhaps it was an artifact of the actual moon. Earlier in Sharkey’s PhD program, one of his advisers published a paper on lunar samples brought back by the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. The results of Sharkey’s telescope data were compared with the work done by the older geologists in the rock laboratory. The kind of space-weathering lunar silicates undergo when they’re still on the surface of the moon precisely accounted for the differences in the infrared reflectivity between common asteroids and Kamo’oalewa.
“Visually, what you’re seeing is weathered silicate,” says Sharkey. “The eons of exposure to space environment and the micrometeorite impacts, it’s almost like a fingerprint and it’s hard to miss.”
How Kamo’oalewa shook free of our lunar companion is no mystery. The moon’s been getting bombarded by space rocks for billions of years, resulting in all manner of lunar debris getting ejected into space (nearly 500 bits of which have made it to the surface of the Earth as meteorites). Kamo’oalewa is one such piece of lunar rubble that spiraled away from the moon. It was not able to land on Earth, or tumble into the void. Instead it became a quasi satellite.
“We see thousands of craters on the moon, so some of this lunar ejecta has to be sticking around in space,” says Sharkey.
Kamo’oalewa won’t stick around all that long, as its current trajectory is not entirely stable. According to estimates from Sharkey and others, the object will remain an earthly companion for only about 300 more years—nothing at all on the cosmic clock—after which it will break free of its current gravitational chains and twirl off into the void. It was originally a part the moon and then it became a friend of Earth. The rest of its life will be spent traveling alone.