by Apostolos Christou

An international team of planetary scientists led by astronomers at AOP have found an asteroid trailing behind Mars with a composition very similar to the Moon’s. The asteroid could be an ancient piece of debris, dating back to the gigantic impacts that formed the Moon and the other rocky planets in our solar system like Mars and the Earth. The research, which was published in the journal Icarus (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0019103520303602), also has implications for finding such primordial objects associated with our own planet.

Trojans are a class of asteroid that follows the planets in their orbits as a flock of sheep might follow a shepherd, trapped within gravitational “safe havens” 60 degrees in front of, and behind, the planet (Figure 1). They are of great interest to scientists as they represent leftover material from the formation and early evolution of the solar system. Several thousands of those Trojans exist along the orbit of the giant planet Jupiter. Closer to the Sun, astronomers have so far discovered only a handful of Trojans of Mars, the planet next door to Earth.

Depiction of the planet Mars and its retinue of Trojans circling around the L4 and L5 Lagrange points. The dashed curve traces the planet’s orbit. At L5, asteroid 101429 is represented by the blue point, the asteroid Eureka and its family are represented in red and amber respectively. 

A team including scientists from Italy, Bulgaria and the US and led by the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium (AOP) in Northern Ireland has been studying the Trojans of Mars to understand what they tell us about the early history of the inner worlds of our solar system – the so-called terrestrial planets – but also to inform searches for Trojans of the Earth. Ironically, it is much easier to find Trojans of Mars than for our own planet because these Earth Trojans, if they exist, sit always close to the Sun in the sky where it is difficult to point a telescope. An Earth Trojan, named 2010 TK7, was found a decade ago by NASA’s WISE space telescope, but computer modelling showed it is a temporary visitor from the belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter rather than a relic planetesimal from the Earth’s formation.

To find out the composition of the Mars Trojans, the team used X-SHOOTER, a spectrograph mounted on the European Southern Observatory 8-m Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. X-SHOOTER looks at how the surface of the asteroid reflects sunlight of different colours – its reflectance spectrum. By performing a spectral comparison with other solar system bodies with known composition, a process called taxonomy, the team hoped to determine if this asteroid is made by material similar to the rocky planets like the Earth, or if it is a piece of carbon- and water-rich matter typical of the outer solar system beyond Jupiter.

One on the Trojans the team looked at was asteroid (101429) 1998 VF31. Existing colour data on the object suggested a composition similar to a common class of meteorites called ordinary chondrites. The light-collecting power of the VLT allowed to gather higher-quality data on this asteroid than ever before. By combining these new measurements with data obtained previously at NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, the team then tried to classify 101429. They found that the spectrum did not match well with any particular type of meteorite or asteroid and, as a result, expanded their analysis to include spectra from other types of surfaces.

To their surprise, they found (Figure 2) that the best spectral match was not with other small bodies but with our nearest neighbour, the Moon. As Dr Galin Borisov, a PDRA at AOP who was deeply involved in the spectral analysis explains: “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 1 and 2 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”.

Reflectance spectrum of asteroid 101429 from data obtained at the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope in Chile and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. This is plotted against a spectrum of an area around Littrow crater near the Apollo 17 landing site on the Moon obtained from the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.

Where could such an unusual object have come from? One possibility is that 101429 is just another asteroid, similar perhaps to ordinary chondrite meteorites, that acquired its lunar-like appearance through aeons of exposure to solar radiation, a process called space weathering.

Alternatively, the asteroid may look like the Moon because it does come from the Moon. Dr Apostolos Christou, AOP astronomer and lead author of the paper explains: “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. Large asteroids – we call these planetesimals – were constantly 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 third, and perhaps more likely scenario is that the object came from Mars itself. As Dr Christou points out, “The shape of the 101429 spectrum tells us that it is rich in pyroxene, a mineral found in the outer layer or crust of planet-sized bodies. Mars, like the Moon and the Earth, was pummeled by impacts early in its history, one of these was responsible for the gigantic Borealis basin, a crater as wide as the planet itself. Such a colossal impact could easily have sent 101429 on its way to the planet’s L5 Lagrangian point.” Indeed, a Mars origin was proposed a few years ago for 101429’s Trojan siblings, a cluster of Trojans collectively known as the Eureka family (Figure 1). These asteroids also have an unusual composition but, whereas 101429 is pyroxene-rich these Eureka family asteroids are mostly olivine, a mineral found deep in a planetary mantle.

101429 and its brethren also have something to teach us about  finding the Earth Trojans, if they exist. Previous work by the team had shown that solar radiation causes debris, in the form of boulder- or city-block-sized chunks, from these asteroids to slowly leak out of the Trojan clouds of Mars. If the Earth Trojans are anything like Mars’s, the same mechanism would act as a source of small near-Earth asteroids that will stand out because of their uncommon composition.

Finding these objects might turn out to be a job for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, poised to begin the most ambitious survey of the solar system to-date. Rubin is expected to discover roughly ten times as many asteroids as currently known and, along with the GAIA satellite already surveying the sky from the L2 Earth-Sun Lagrange point, may offer us the best near-term prospects for tracking down the debris of Earth’s Trojan companions.

The paper describing the research is freely accessible at https://arxiv.org/abs/2010.10947

Acknowledgements: Funding and facilities to support this work were provided by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Northern Ireland Department for Communities and ESO, the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere.


138 Comments

The Moon’s tiny twin is stalking Mars – imagdpi · November 12, 2020 at 22:32

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The Moon’s tiny twin is stalking Mars - Science and Tech News · November 12, 2020 at 19:21

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Astronomers surprised by asteroid trailing Mars that's a 'dead-ringer' for the moon - Carelyst · November 6, 2020 at 02:28

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[…] Northern Ireland have now determined to have a strikingly similar spectrograph reading to the Moon, according to a press release. After being blasted away by some sort of ancient collision in orbit, they suspect 101429 got […]

101429 A Tiny Twin of the Moon - Follows Mars Through Space » The Cosmic Companion · November 5, 2020 at 20:24

[…] of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains Dr. Galin Borisov of Armagh Observatory and […]

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[…] of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains Dr. Galin Borisov of Armagh Observatory and […]

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[…] in Northern Eire have now decided to have a strikingly related spectrograph studying to the Moon, according to a press release. After being blasted away by some type of historical collision in orbit, they believe 101429 bought […]

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Moon's 'long-lost twin' is following Mars around like a puppy | DHT News · November 4, 2020 at 19:29

[…] best spectral match was not with other small bodies but with our nearest neighbor, the moon,” said lead author Apostolos Christou in an AOP statement on […]

Moon's 'long-lost twin' is following Mars round like a cosmic pet - Timesdel · November 4, 2020 at 19:24

[…] match was not with different small our bodies however with our nearest neighbor, the moon,” said lead author Apostolos Christou in an AOP statement on […]

Moon’s ‘long-lost twin’ is following Mars around like a puppy – CNET – News Lead 24/7 · November 4, 2020 at 19:19

[…] best spectral match was not with other small bodies but with our nearest neighbor, the moon,” said lead author Apostolos Christou in an AOP statement on […]

Moon's 'long-lost twin' is following Mars round like a cosmic pet | · November 4, 2020 at 19:18

[…] match was not with different small our bodies however with our nearest neighbor, the moon,” said lead author Apostolos Christou in an AOP statement on […]

Moon's 'long-lost twin' is following Mars around like a puppy | kwinews · November 4, 2020 at 19:15

[…] best spectral match was not with other small bodies but with our nearest neighbor, the moon,” said lead author Apostolos Christou in an AOP statement on […]

Moon’s ‘long-lost twin’ is following Mars around like a puppy – CNET – NEW EXPRESS NEWS · November 4, 2020 at 19:13

[…] best spectral match was not with other small bodies but with our nearest neighbor, the moon," said lead author Apostolos Christou in an AOP statement on […]

Moon’s ‘long-lost twin’ is following Mars around like a puppy – CNET – Ranzware Tech NEWS · November 4, 2020 at 19:05

[…] best spectral match was not with other small bodies but with our nearest neighbor, the moon,” said lead author Apostolos Christou in an AOP statement on […]

Eles encontraram o "irmão" perdido da Lua localizado atrás de Marte · November 4, 2020 at 18:38

[…] Fonte: AOP […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - ScienceAlert | Publication Engine · November 4, 2020 at 18:12

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – ScienceAlert | FM Pharmacists · November 4, 2020 at 17:56

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

Mars Would possibly Have Kidnapped Our Moon's Twin · November 4, 2020 at 16:57

[…] Supply: AOP […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - ScienceAlert — TodayHeadline · November 4, 2020 at 16:49

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – ScienceAlert – Adsense LAB Blog · November 4, 2020 at 16:46

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – ScienceAlert | Sambaad Patra · November 4, 2020 at 16:20

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - Newslanes · November 4, 2020 at 14:47

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An asteroid trailing after Mars could actually be the stolen twin of our Moon - Science Daily Press · November 4, 2020 at 13:45

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon Pressaggregate | PRESSaggregate · November 4, 2020 at 12:11

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

Behind an asteroid after Mars may actually be the stolen twin of our moon · November 4, 2020 at 12:09

[…] parts of the moon, where there is an exposed bedroom like crater interiors and mountains.” Explains AOP astronomer Kalin […]

يمكن أن يكون الكويكب الذي يتخلف عن المريخ في الواقع التوأم المسروق لقمرنا · November 4, 2020 at 12:03

[…] صخور قاعدية مكشوفة مثل الفوهات الداخلية والجبال ،” يشرح عالم الكيمياء الفلكية جالين […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – Monkey Viral · November 4, 2020 at 11:52

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

Asteroid yang Mengikuti Mars Sebenarnya Bisa Menjadi Kembar Bulan Kita yang Dicuri · November 4, 2020 at 11:44

[…] bagian Bulan di mana ada batuan dasar yang terbuka seperti interior kawah dan pegunungan,” menjelaskan Ahli astrokimia AOP Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - Todayz · November 4, 2020 at 11:29

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

Un astéroïde qui traîne après Mars pourrait en fait être le jumeau volé de notre lune · November 4, 2020 at 11:28

[…] Lune où il y a un substrat rocheux exposé, comme les intérieurs de cratères et les montagnes», explique L’astrochimiste de l’AOP Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – ScienceAlert | Everyday News Update · November 4, 2020 at 10:43

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

Mars trailing asteroids could actually be the stolen twins of our moon – Crime India News · November 4, 2020 at 10:22

[…] be hardly ringing for parts of the moon with exposed bedrock like mountains and inside craters.” Explicate AOP astrophysic chemist Galin […]

Un asteroide detrás de Marte podría ser en realidad el gemelo robado de nuestra luna - Amo Misterios · November 4, 2020 at 10:12

[…] para partes de la Luna donde hay lecho rocoso expuesto, como interiores de cráteres y montañas». explica El astroquímico de AOP Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – ScienceAlert – US News Site · November 4, 2020 at 10:09

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

Un asteroide detrás de Marte podría ser en realidad el gemelo robado de nuestra luna · November 4, 2020 at 10:07

[…] partes de la Luna donde hay lecho rocoso expuesto, como interiores de cráteres y montañas”. explica El astroquímico de AOP Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - Forsages · November 4, 2020 at 09:51

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – ScienceAlert – Gama Sell Store · November 4, 2020 at 09:48

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Might Really Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon | ThisHappenedUs · November 4, 2020 at 09:44

[…] the Moon the place there’s uncovered bedrock akin to crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – ScienceAlert – News around the World · November 4, 2020 at 09:10

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – ScienceAlert – Jumbuck News · November 4, 2020 at 09:04

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

Mars trailing asteroids could actually be the stolen twins of our moon · November 4, 2020 at 08:57

[…] hardly ringing for parts of the moon with exposed bedrock like mountains and inside craters.” Explicate AOP astrophysic chemist Galin […]

An asteroid after Mars could be our moon's stolen twin · November 4, 2020 at 08:48

[…] some parts of the moon, where crater interiors and mountain – like giants are exposed.” Explaining AOP astronomer Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – Everyday News Update · November 4, 2020 at 08:44

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - Unfold Times · November 4, 2020 at 08:43

[…] of the Moon the place there may be uncovered bedrock akin to crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - World Times TV · November 4, 2020 at 08:36

[…] the place there’s uncovered bedrock corresponding to crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

Un asteroide que se arrastra después de Marte podría ser en realidad el gemelo robado de nuestra luna · November 4, 2020 at 08:12

[…] de la Luna donde hay lecho rocoso expuesto, como interiores de cráteres y montañas», agregó. explica El astroquímico de AOP Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon | HOTNEWS · November 4, 2020 at 08:04

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - XNN News Blog · November 4, 2020 at 07:17

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars May Truly Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - NEWS TECHNOLOGY WORLD · November 4, 2020 at 07:09

[…] Moon the place there’s uncovered bedrock similar to crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - World Times TV · November 4, 2020 at 07:06

[…] the Moon the place there may be uncovered bedrock resembling crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - News Portal · November 4, 2020 at 07:00

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – MedLancr – Monkey Viral · November 4, 2020 at 06:53

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - Inspired Girls News Magazine · November 4, 2020 at 06:52

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - extension 13 · November 4, 2020 at 06:50

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

Um asteróide depois de Marte pode ser o gêmeo roubado de nossa lua | Blog Ambiental · November 4, 2020 at 06:50

[…] da Lua onde a rocha mãe está exposta, uma vez que o interno da cratera e as montanhas.” explicar Astrochemist Galin Borisov da […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon | NextBreakingNews.com · November 4, 2020 at 06:43

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon – MedLancr · November 4, 2020 at 06:41

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon - Digi Flash · November 4, 2020 at 06:39

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon | Dose Of Viral · November 4, 2020 at 06:35

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

An Asteroid Trailing After Mars Could Actually Be The Stolen Twin of Our Moon | MatraKhabar · November 4, 2020 at 06:34

[…] for parts of the Moon where there is exposed bedrock such as crater interiors and mountains,” explains AOP astrochemist Galin […]

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