Astronomers have been suggesting that Earth may have multiple moons for generations. However, the dust-orbiting objects have only recently confirmed. As scientists have theorized more than one earth moon throughout the years, they determined there are 5 precise points of stability within deep space that such an object could be located.
These stability points are called Lagrange points. At these orbital sweet spots, the gravitational pull of two objects (for example, the Earth and the Sun) are balanced out by the centripetal force of their respective orbits. At these points, objects remain at consistent distances from both Earth and the moon. Additionally, they produce little to no movement/shifting. This is because they are trapped in relatively stable positions.
Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski first searched some of these points in the 1950s. He had hoped to find fully solid moons at these points– L4 and L5. However, he ended up discovering our first glimpse at the possibility of dust clouds orbiting our earth. Fellow scientists continued to question their existence, as they are extremely difficult to locate.
Hard to Find, But Vital for Space Science
Hungarian astronomer Judit Slíz-Balogh confirms this. “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,” Balogh says. “It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbor.”
Balogh is among the group of Hungarian astronomers and physicists who say they have finally confirmed the existence of two “moons” orbiting Earth, made entirely of dust. The team captured snapshots of the mystery clouds, hanging out around 250,000 miles away. This means these clouds are roughly the same distance from Earth as the moon is. The team documented their discovery in a report called Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
According to this recent discovery, each Kordylewski cloud is roughly 15 by 10 degrees wide. If you’re using lunar disks for scale, the clouds are equal to about 30 by 20 lunar disks in the night sky each. This means each cloud takes up an area of 65,000 miles by 45,000 miles in space, making them almost nine times wider than earth!
Interplanetary Highways, New Moons, and More
Clearly, the actual clouds are huge. However, the particles within the clouds are roughly just a micrometer across. Sunlight reflects off of these particles, giving them a subtle glow. However, the clouds have been so difficult to locate because of how faint they are among the darkness of space. “It is very difficult to detect the Kordylewski clouds against the galactic light, star light, zodiacal light, and sky glow,” says study coauthor Gábor Horváth, a physicist at Eötvös Loránd University. However, thanks to updated technology, researchers have discovered the scattered light reflecting off the particles within the cloud. They’re able to do this by using special polarizing filters on their cameras.
These dust particles are comparable to cosmic tumbleweeds, and open up a plethora of opportunity for further space exploration. Horváth says, “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.” Lagrange points could serve as transfer stations for missions to Mars and more.