Astronomers have spotted an unusual asteroid with the shortest "year" known for any asteroid. The rocky body, dubbed 2019 LF6, is about a kilometer in size and circles the sun roughly every 151 days. In its orbit, the asteroid swings out beyond Venus and, at times, comes closer in than Mercury, which circles the sun every 88 days. 2019 LF6 is one of only 20 known "Atira" asteroids, whose orbits fall entirely within Earth's.
"You don't find kilometer-size asteroids very often these days," says Quanzhi Ye, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech who discovered 2019 LF6 and works with Tom Prince, the Ira S. Bowen Professor of Physics at Caltech and a senior research scientist at JPL, and George Helou, the executive director of IPAC, an astronomy center at Caltech.
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"Thirty years ago, people started organizing methodical asteroid searches, finding larger objects first, but now that most of them have been found, the bigger ones are rare birds," he says. "LF6 is very unusual both in orbit and in size—its unique orbit explains why such a large asteroid eluded several decades of careful searches."
2019 LF6 was discovered via the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, a state-of-the-art camera at the Palomar Observatory that scans the skies every night for transient objects, such as exploding and flashing stars and moving asteroids. Because ZTF scans the sky so rapidly, it is well-suited for finding Atira asteroids, which have short observing windows.
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