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2020, record year for the discovery of asteroids

Some passed within 400 kilometers of the earth. What was believed to be an asteroid was also detected but turned out to be a discarded booster rocket after propelling a space capsule to the Moon in the 1960s.

A new report says 2020 was a record year for the discovery of new asteroids, particularly those with near-Earth orbits despite the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down several observatories.

The report, published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature, says astronomers recorded 2,958 previously unknown near-Earth asteroids over the course of the year, the most since 1998, the year the US space agency, NASA, began surveying. track such objects.

More than half of the asteroids and other objects recorded were discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona, which uses its three telescopes to search for potentially threatening space rocks. Astronomers discovered 1,548 near-Earth objects, including with the center briefly closed last spring due to the pandemic, and a longer closure in June, due to a wildfire in the area.

Among the Catalina 2020 discoveries was a rare “mini moon” called 2020 CD3, a small asteroid less than 3 meters in diameter that had been temporarily trapped by Earth’s gravity. The mini moon separated from Earth’s orbit last April.

The report says another 1,152 discoveries come from the Pan-STARRS survey telescopes in Hawaii. One of the objects discovered was not a space rock at all, but a discarded booster rocket that had been circling in space since 1966 when it helped launch a NASA spacecraft to the Moon.

The report says that at least 107 of the objects discovered last year were closer to Earth than the distance between the planet and the Moon.

Among the near misses last year was the tiny asteroid 2020 QG, which passed just 2,950 kilometers above the Indian Ocean in August. That was the closest known approach of an object from outer space, until just three months later, when another small object, called 2020 VT4, passed within 400 kilometers (about the length of New York state) from the planet.

Observers didn’t discover 2020 VT4 until 15 hours after it had flown over the ground. The scientist says that if it had struck, it probably would have disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA created the Center for Near Earth Objects (CNEO) in 1998, fulfilling a request from Congress to track and catalog at least 90% of space objects of a kilometer or more that can be brought closer. to Earth and be a threat. Since then, CNEO and its collaborating astronomers have recorded more than 25,000 such objects.

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