The astronomical anomaly is understood to have formed billions of years ago during the early days of the solar system. Astronomers from the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium (AOP) in Northern Ireland have tracked the object to a family of so-called Trojan asteroids that share an orbit with Mars. Trojans are all space bodies that happen to share an orbit of the Sun with a planet or a moon.
And Trojan asteroids, in particular, are of great interest to scientists as they constitute leftover material from the formative days of the planets.
The US space agency NASA, for instance, has branded them “time capsules from the birth of our solar system” as they can offer insight into how planets are born.
The majority of Trojans in our system are found in two clouds orbiting the Sun together with Jupiter.
But the UK astronomers were interested in learning whether any Trojans are orbiting the Earth.
Much to their surprise, they discovered (101429) 1998 VF31 – an asteroid with a spectral match to the Moon and not the other small objects near Mars.
In other words, the asteroid’s surface composition was found to reflect light in a way that resembled the Moon more than any other asteroid or object.
Dr Galin Borisov from the AOP, who took part in the spectral analysis, said: “Many of the spectra we have for asteroids are not very different from the Moon but when you look closely there are important differences, for example, the shape and depth of broad spectral absorptions at wavelengths of one and two microns.
“However, the spectrum of this particular asteroid seems to be almost a dead-ringer for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains.”
The discovery was made using the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
The research was supported by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and presented in the journal Icarus.
And although the exact origin of the Moon-like asteroid remains a mystery, the AOP astronomers have proposed a few theories.
According to lead author Dr Apostolos Christous, the asteroid may look like the Moon because it originated from the Moon.
He said: “The early solar system was very different from the place we see today.
“The space between the newly-formed planets was full of debris and collisions were commonplace.
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“Large asteroids – we call these planetesimals – were hitting the Moon and the other planets.
“A shard from such a collision could have reached the orbit of Mars when the planet was still forming and was trapped in its Trojan clouds.”
A second theory, however, suggests the asteroid originates in the Red Planet itself.
Much like the Earth and the Moon, Mars was bombarded with space rocks and debris in the early days of the solar system.
A large impact may have been responsible for sending a moon-like chunk of rock into the planet’s orbit.
One such impact is believed to have created our Moon billions of years ago.
In this scenario, an object dubbed Theia may have crashed into our planet, sending up clouds of debris into space.
The debris then coalesced and took shape into the Moon as we know it today.
A similar theory suggests two objects five times bigger than Mars collided and created in the process both the Moon and the Earth.
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