The Earth doesn’t have just one Moon, it actually has three — possibly even more — although the two “newest” ones are made entirely of dust, the New York Post is reporting.
You’ve likely believed since elementary school in the immutable and unimpeachable fact that the Earth has only one natural satellite: the Moon. That particular ball of rock has been orbiting our own little ball of rock since billions of years before Homo sapiens evolved and started venerating it. And since the advent of telescopes, scientists have failed to find any evidence of another one — until now.
Or 1772. Or 1961. It all depends on how you look at it.
Back before the Revolutionary War, astronomers posited the existence of so-called “LaGrange Points,” which, according to the simplest and shortest of explanations, are five points in space — labeled L1 through L5 — “where the gravitational pull between the Earth and Moon balance each other out.” Then in 1961, Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski spotted what he believed was a dust cloud near L4. However, scientists failed to replicate Kordylewski’s results for the next 57 years.
After nearly 60 years of controversy, however, scientists this week announced, via Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, that they’ve found not just one of Kordylewski’s proposed moons, but two of them.
The proposed moons had evaded detection by our telescopes for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they are essentially clouds of dust. The fine particulate composition of these moons scatters what little light they reflect, making it next to impossible to spot them. Nevertheless, Hungarian astronomers Judit Slíz-Balogh and Gábor Horváth — using computer models and good old-fashioned observation — found them. Or at least, indisputable evidence of them.
They’re believed to be about nine times as wide as the Earth, according to ZME Science, and are believed to be about the same distance from us as the actual Moon is — that is, about 240,000 miles away.
Don’t think that you’re going to spot them with a backyard telescope, however. They evaded detection for decades, with the best astronomical minds in the world using the best equipment that money can buy to search for them. An off-the-shelf telescope in a suburban back yard isn’t going to see anything.
Even if you could see them, there’s not much to see. The new “moons” are essentially cosmic “dust bunnies.” Not unlike the dust bunnies that accumulate under your furniture, these moons are just a loose collection of dust, far from solid and with no real form.
The discovery — or, confirmation — of the existence of the two dust clouds could have far-reaching implications for the future of astronomy. For example, the much-anticipated James Webb Telescope is scheduled for launch in a few years, headed towards L2. However, if L2, like L4 and L5, were to be home to a giant and previously-undetected dust cloud, it could prove catastrophic for the telescope’s mission.