Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Warning Information found on this page has been archived and is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. Please visit NRC's new site for the most recent information.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats by contacting us.


News Contact

Kevin Farris
Phone: 250-363-6951
Fax: 250-363-0045
Email: Kevin.Farris@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

5071 West Saanich Road
Victoria, British Columbia, V9E 2E7
Canada

NRC Experts and Staff

Media Toll-free: 1-855-282-1637

ARCHIVED - News Releases - International Team of Astronomers Finds Missing Link

September 4, 2008 — Victoria, British Columbia

(September 4, 2008, Victoria, BC) — Astronomers have spotted a surprising asteroid, whose unusual orbit may help explain where comets come from. The asteroid, currently named 2008 KV42, is orbiting the Sun backwards and almost perpendicular to the orbits of the planets – a 104 degree tilt. This odd orbit suggests that 2008 KV42 may have been pulled into our solar system from the Oort Cloud. Comets can originate in the Oort Cloud and this discovery may finally show how they transition from the Oort Cloud to become objects like Halley's Comet.

The orbits of asteroids in the region beyond Neptune's orbit provide important clues as to how the outer Solar System took form and evolved. Discoveries of new classes of objects have led to fresh insights into the early history of our solar system, challenging accepted theories. The discovery of 2008 KV42, the first-ever object in this region to be detected with a backwards (retrograde) orbit, promises to do just that.

"Although we've been specifically looking for highly-tilted trans-Neptunians for some time now, we didn't expect to find a retrograde one," said Dr. JJ Kavelaars of the National Research Council of Canada. "A number of theories on the formation of the outer solar system have suggested that such things might be out there, but observational searches for them are very difficult."

Part of the difficulty is that these objects are extremely rare. Despite having surveyed most of the northern sky for bright objects of this type, astronomers have found only one other that might belong to the same class as 2008 KV42. Discovered six years ago by the Deep Ecliptic Survey, 2002 XU93 has an orbit on a 77 degree tilt.

One of the great frustrations for researchers looking into the solar region beyond Neptune has been trying to pin down the source regions for various comet types. Finding objects that provide a link between the source region and the observed comet population is an enormous help in choosing between the source regions, greatly clarifying our understanding of the formation of the outer solar system.

This discovery was made using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii, with follow-up observations provided by the MMT telescope in Arizona, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) 4-metre telescope in Chile, and the Gemini South telescope, also in Chile, of Canada's Gemini Observatory. The discovery team consists of scientists in Canada, France, and the United States.

"Having quick access to the MMT and Gemini South telescopes, via the generous support of the observers at MMT and the Canadian Director of Gemini South, Jean‑René Roy, was a huge help here. Given the highly unusual orbit, the object would have been lost without the critical tracking contribution of these large telescopes," said Dr. Brett Gladman, an astronomy professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia.

The discovery team is currently planning follow-up observations of 2008 KV42 to pin down its orbit with greater precision. The exciting work of unravelling the archaeological information trapped in the orbit of this highly exceptional member of the trans-Neptunian population can then begin.

BACKGROUNDER

The discovery of 2008 KV42 was announced at the 10th triennial‚ "Asteroids, Comets and Meteors" meeting in Baltimore and via the Minor Planet Electronic Circular 2008-O02 on July 16, 2008, and International Astronomical Union electronic circular 8960 on July 18, 2008. Recent observations taken with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope have further refined our knowledge of the orbit, securing this as a possible link between the inner Oort cloud and the Halley-type comets.

With a semi- major axis of 46 +/- 5 AU, 2008 KV42 was discovered while at a distance of 32 AU and has a perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) at roughly the distance of Uranus.

Additional information about the Canada-France Ecliptic Plane Survey (CFEPS) project and the team members, as well as further details about 2008 KV42 can be found at www.cfeps.net.

 


For more information, please visit NRC's Web site at http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca or contact:

Kevin Farris
Manager, Communications
NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics
Tel: (250) 363-6951
Kevin.Farris@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

Natalie Hall
Media Relations Officer
National Research Council
Tel: (613) 990-6091
Cell: (613) 853-5611
Natalie.Hall@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca