For as long as any of us can remember, the Earth has had only one moon—the big shiny one we all know and love! Astronomers have now discovered, however, that our planet actually has two other satellites moving in orbit around us at roughly the same height as the moon. Though they’re not the typical, rocky moons we think of, these orbiting bodies could still have a huge influence on future space travel.
They were first spied over a half-century ago. Now, Hungarian scientists have announced in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society that they’ve managed to confirm the existence of the Kordylewski dust clouds, which both hang above planet Earth at an altitude of about 250,000 miles.
First time I even heard of the Kordylewski clouds. There is a lot to learn about the universe, and apparently a lot to learn about the space around the earth as well. https://t.co/YIBFto2baA
— Mark Kachmarek (@kachmarek) November 6, 2018
The clouds are named after Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski, who first caught a peek at them in 1961. Ever since then, astronomers have tried in vain to confirm or deny their existence.
According to Judit Slíz-Balogh, an astronomer at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary:
“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. It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbor.”
— Voting Tote Bag (@MuseumToteBag) November 6, 2018
The study shows that the clouds measure “15 by 10 degrees wide,” which translates to an area of about “65,000 by 45,000 miles.” That said, the particles within the clouds are minuscule, with most measuring less than a micrometer in diameter. One of the only ways to detect them is by observing the glow created when sunlight strikes them.
— Massimo (@Rainmaker1973b) October 29, 2018
Where did these dust clouds come from? They naturally formed at two of Earth’s five Lagrange points, locations above the planet where the forces of Earth’s gravity, the sun’s gravity, and the centripetal force of orbiting perfectly balance each other, creating a relative sense of stability. The Moon sits in one of these spots, and Kazimierz Kordylewski discovered his clouds while researching L4 and L5.
mankind must leave the cradle that is earth and let it heal, theres 5 perfectly good lagrange points in space to build colonies
— 「Hana」 (@cutelittlepunk) November 6, 2018
Knowing that dust clouds reside in two of Earth’s Lagrange points could be very important to plans for future space exploration, many of which involve parking space stations or spacecraft at these points of stability.
According to study coauthor Gábor Horváth, a physicist at Eötvös Loránd University:
“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.”
James Webb Space Telescope will be launched this October from French Guyana to orbit at Lagrange Point L2. (Yes, Wikipedia that) https://t.co/FH5z9C3AcN
— Miguel Hernández (@greenod) July 4, 2018
So, before you downplay the importance of these dust clouds, know they could be an important scientific discovery that saves lives! What’s more, confirmation of their existence will inspire many scientists to further study L2 and L3 to see if other mysterious bodies may be hiding in orbit.