A rare asteroid orbiting snugly within the inner confines of our solar system has been discovered by Caltech's Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, a survey camera based at Palomar Observatory. The newfound body, named 2020 AV2, is the first asteroid found to orbit entirely within the orbit of Venus.
"Getting past the orbit of Venus must have been challenging," says , the official organization for cataloging small solar system bodies such as asteroids, and this piqued the interest of the astronomical community. Several telescopes around the globe followed up on the target, helping to pin down the body's unusual orbit and narrow down estimates of its size.
The asteroid spans about 1 to 3 kilometers and has an elongated orbit tilted about 15 degrees relative to the plane of our solar system. During its 151-day orbit around the sun, it always travels interior to Venus, but at its closest approach to the sun, it comes very close to the orbit of Mercury.
"An encounter with a planet probably flung the asteroid into Venus's orbit," explains Tom Prince, the Ira S. Bowen Professor of Physics at Caltech and a senior research scientist at JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA, as well as a co-investigator of ZTF. "It's the opposite of what happens when a space mission swings by a planet for a gravity boost. Instead of gaining energy from a planet, it loses it."
Members of the ZTF team says they look forward to hunting for more Vatira asteroids in the future. "We have no idea how many more there are like this or if it's unique," says Helou.
ZTF is funded by the National Science Foundation and an international collaboration of partners. Additional support comes from Caltech and the Heising-Simons Foundation. ZTF data are processed and archived by IPAC. NASA supports ZTF's search for near-Earth objects through the Near-Earth Object Observations program.