Hidden Moons

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Zoya Ansari is fascinated by new discovery

Mars Moon Phobos

Astronomical researchers always speculated the existence of more moons orbiting the Earth. The speculation was strengthened by discovery of more than one moon orbiting other planets such as Jupiter and Neptune. They observed that it was very likely that other similar moons may also be found orbiting the Earth. The presence of such bodies was considered worthy of research because of its viability to the future prospects of earth itself.

The calculations were not misplaced as after a continuous search of half a century, Hungarian astronomers and physicists say they have finally confirmed the existence of two Earth-orbiting “moons” entirely made of dust. The team was successful in capturing snapshots of the mysterious clouds lurking just 250,000 miles away estimated to be roughly the same distance as the moon.

The researchers inferred multiple moons existed in relation to Earth but the dust clouds appearing to be similar to the presence of the moon were first discovered in 1961 when a Polish astronomer got a glimpse of the celestial formation. However, the claims were not found to be credible and their existence disputed on the grounds that the objects discovered by the Polish astronomer were the toughest objects to detect. It was also noted that though the objects are described to be as close to earth as the moon but they were largely overlooked as an astronomical periphery.

The latest discovery is described as an intriguing confirmation that earth has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside its recognised lunar neighbour known as the moon. According to the new findings, each dusty cloud named Kordylewski, after the researcher who found it, is about 15 by 10 degrees wide or equal to 30 by 20 lunar disks in the night sky. This translates to an area in space about 65,000 by 45,000 miles in actual size that is estimated to be nearly nine times wider than earth.

Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede
Jupiter’s moon Europa
Saturn’s Moon Titan

It was also observed that the clouds are of enormous size though the individual particles that comprise them are estimated to measure just a micrometer across. Their glow is due to the Sunlight reflecting off these particles slightly mirroring pyramid-shaped glow of the zodiacal light that results from dust scattered between orbits of the planets. These satellite clouds, however, have remained hidden in the darkness of space until now simply because they are super faint and exceedingly difficult to detect.

The researchers admit that it is indeed cumbersome to detect the Kordylewski clouds against the galactic light, star light, zodiacal light, and sky glow. However, the availability of newly-designed special polarizing filters placed on cameras has provided researchers the opportunity to reveal the scattered light reflecting off the individual particles within the clouds.

The idea of the existence of multiple moons aligned to the earth has been debated since generations and five specific points of stability in deep space were repeatedly suggested where it was figured that such moons could be located. These orbital sweet spots, known as Lagrange points, are where the gravitational pull of two orbiting objects—Earth and the sun—is balanced out by the centripetal force of their orbits. Lagrange point ensures that objects remain trapped in relatively stable positions and at constant distances from both moon and Earth.

It was the Polish astronomer Kordylewski who first searched two of these points, L4 and L5, hoping that solid body-moons could be found and his research dates back to the 1950s. Instead, he ended up revealing the first hints of dust clouds orbiting Earth. It is a well known fact that from comets to meteor showers to the zodiacal band, the solar system is a dusty place. During dark skies, sky watchers can clearly glean the clouds of particles strewn between the planets. The Kordylewski clouds, however, are not as stable as these other dusty features in deep space. The cloud’s particles are continually swapped out, making them simultaneously ever-changing and ancient.

During the process, dust particles get trapped in the clouds due to the Lagrange balancing act and later escape due to slight tugs from either earth or the moon. To replenish their dust supply, the clouds draw from all types of sources for interplanetary particles. So, while the particles themselves may not reside very long in terms of astronomical time, the clouds may have been a natural fixture since the birth of the earth-moon system.

It is now pointed out that the dynamics of Kordylewski clouds may very well end up being most important from the point of view of space navigation safety. If the hypothesis presented by the astronomers is correct then the possibility of discovery of more roving clouds of dust chasing earth may just be around the corner through neighbouring Lagrange points. It is an exciting discovery opening up chances of further exploration in determining the existence of bodies near earth.

Zoya Ansari has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense

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