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Earth's first known Trojan asteroid follows our orbit like a second Earth

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Trojan asteroids are objects that share a planet's orbit around the Sun but reside in what are basically gravitational dead zones. We've discovered Earth's first Trojan asteroid...but how did it get there, and why have we only just found it?

In any system where a smaller object orbits a larger one - say the Moon going around the Earth, or the Earth going around the Sun - there are five places where the gravitational influence of the two objects cancel each other out. These are known as the Lagrangian points. In the Sun-Earth system, one of these points are found directly on the other side of the Sun from Earth, two are found in the immediate vicinity of Earth along the Sun's extended radius, and two more are located 60 degrees away from Earth in either direction on its orbit. You can see a diagram of these points below.


An object located at any of these points can remain at a constantly fixed position relative to both the Sun and the Earth - in other words, it shares both the Earth's orbit and its orbital speed. As you can see from the diagram, we number the different Lagrangian points: L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5. L1 and L2, being the closest to Earth, are the ones we most often take advantage of, placing solar observatories at L1 and space telescopes at L2.


L3 is the one on the other side of the Sun, and it's where science fiction tends to put hidden "Counter-Earths", objects that share our orbit but remain forever hidden. (You, uh, may have heard of one such example of this.) However, while the notion of an object hidden at L3 is enticing, the physics of it simply don't work - the gravitational influences of other planets, particularly Venus, make L3 far too unstable to support even a small object for very long.

So that just leaves L4 and L5, the so-called Trojan points. At these positions, the distances to the two large masses in the system is equal, balancing out their gravitational effects. As long as the mass of the larger object in the system is at least 25 times more massive than the smaller one - which is true for the Sun and all its respective planets, and, though only just, the Earth and the Moon - any objects at L4 and L5 are in completely stable equilibrium.

Theoretically, you could put just about any object in L4 and L5 and the system would remain stable, including an entire other planet. In fact, astronomers thought they had discovered a pair of co-orbiting planets, but this was later retracted. And one leading theory for the Moon's existence is that a small planet known as Theia once shared Earth's orbit before the two collided, but that remains just speculation.


What we do know is that there are Trojan asteroids in the Lagrangian points around Jupiter - at least 5,000 of them, in fact - as well as around Mars and Neptune. Two of Saturn's moons, Tethys and Dione, each have a pair of smaller moons located at their respective L4 and L5 points. And now we can add an Earthly object to that list: researchers at Canada's Athabasca University used data from NASA's WISE satellite to locate a thousand-foot wide asteroid at our L4 point.

It's the first known Trojan asteroid around Earth, and it wasn't easy to find. That's because L4 and L5 are both spots bathed in tons of sunlight, and it took a highly advanced heat sensor to pick up on the asteroid's existence through all that blinding light. Asteroid 2010 TK7 should remain in a stable, elliptical orbit for at least another 10,000 years, slowing oscillating between being 12 million and 200 million miles away from us. You can see its extremely unusual orbit in the diagram up top.


We don't know how this asteroid got there or even what precisely it is, which is pretty much par for the course with Trojan objects. However, there's a chance that it's a so-called "genesis rock", one that dates right back to the birth of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. If that's the case, studying its composition could provide immense new insight into the birth of our planet.

Nature via New Scientist. Images via Space and Getty.