Geography books may need to be rewritten!
Future space exploration plans are likely to get affected!
In a new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Hungarian astronomers and physicists claim to have accumulated substantial data that confirm the presence of two extra hidden moons, first reported by National Geographic on Tuesday (Nov 6).
Made entirely of interplanetary dust particles, the moons are apparently orbiting Earth at about the same distance as the moon we have always known and seen waning and waxing in the night sky.
Astronomers have long suspected that Earth may have more than one natural satellite in the triangular Lagrange points L4 and L5.
Lagrange points are basically orbital spots between two large celestial bodies where a smaller body is held in its orbital path by the opposing gravitational forces of the two larger bodies acting on it.
However, it wasn’t until 1961 that the two dust clouds, being referred to as hidden moons by the Hungarian researchers, were discovered and photographed by Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski in the vicinity of the L5 point.
The dust clouds, which actually looked like two bright patches, have since been aptly known as the Kordylewski dust clouds, or KDC.
Despite their enormous size, the Kordylewski clouds are extremely difficult to detect against the different lights at play in space, including “galactic light, star light, zodiacal light, and sky glow,” said Gábor Horváth, a physicist at the ELTE Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, and one of the co-authors of the research paper.
“It is very difficult to detect the Kordylewski clouds against the galactic light, starlight, zodiacal light, and sky glow,” Horvath said, adding that “the investigation of the dynamics of Kordylewski clouds may very well end up being most important from the point of view of space navigation safety.”
“The Kordylewski clouds are two of the toughest objects to find, and though they are as close to Earth as the Moon are largely overlooked by researchers in astronomy,” said Judit Slíz-Balogh, an astronomer at the ELTE Eötvös Loránd University; she is also a co-author of the study, along with Horváth and András Barta.
“It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbour,” she said.
Operating out of Slíz-Balogh’s private observatory in Badacsonytördemic, Hungary, the research team was able to take exposures of the presumed location of the Kordylewski clouds at the Lagrange point L5.
However, it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of specialized equipment, such as linearly polarizing filters on the camera lens and a CCD (Charge Coupled Device) detector, which is basically a highly sensitive photon detector used to build up an image of the area of interest.
The images captured show dust-scattered polarized light stretching well beyond the camera’s field of view.
The researchers noted that the pattern was consistent not only with the observations made in an earlier paper on the subject by the same group of researchers but also with Kordylewski observations from the sixties.
“Horváth’s group were able to rule out optical artefacts and other effects, meaning that the presence of the dust cloud is confirmed,” writes Morgan Hollis, Assistant Editor at the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Out of the five Lagrange points that exist (L1, L2, L3, L4 and L5) in the Earth-Moon orbital configuration, the first three (L1-L3) are unstable points, while L4 and L5 are relatively stable due to the fact that each of the two form an equilateral triangle with the two larger bodies.
This means that interplanetary dust and debris, as well as other objects, located in and around Lagrange points L4 and L5 get stability from the opposing gravitational forces of Earth and Moon, making the two points suitable for parking satellites, spacecraft, telescopes and even as transfer stations for deep space missions.
However, the gravitational pull of the sun can play spoilsport, somewhat diminishing their stability; but despite that, they are still areas where interplanetary dust might accumulate, albeit temporarily.
The Hungarian researchers are of the opinion that there are possibly many more similar clouds of interplanetary dust orbiting Earth in the vicinity of one or more of the Lagrange points, waiting to be discovered.