The space rock, known as 2021 PH27, completes one lap around our star every 113 Earth days, its discoverers determined. That’s the shortest orbital period of any known solar system object except the planet Mercury, which takes just 88 days to loop around the sun.
However, 2021 PH27 travels on a much more elliptical path than Mercury does and therefore gets considerably closer to the sun — about 12.4 million miles (20 million kilometers) at closest approach, compared to 29 million miles (47 million km) for the solar system’s innermost planet.
During those close solar passes, 2021 PH27’s surface gets hot enough to melt lead — about 900 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Celsius), the discovery team estimates. Those deep dips into the sun’s gravity well also mean the asteroid experiences the largest general relativity effects of any known solar system object. Such effects manifest as a slight wobble in 2021 PH27’s elliptical orbit around the sun, which the team has observed.
That orbit, by the way, is not stable over the long haul. 2021 PH27 will likely collide with the sun, Mercury or Venus a few million years from now, if it’s not ejected from its current path by a gravitational interaction first, team members said.
2021 PH27 was first spotted on Aug. 13 by astronomers using the Dark Energy Camera (DEC), a powerful multipurpose instrument mounted on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
The team was able to pin down the asteroid’s orbit over the next few days, thanks to further observations by the DEC and the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, as well as smaller scopes in Chile and South Africa operated by the Las Cumbres Observatory.
The 2021 PH27 push postponed some scheduled observations with those instruments, but the reshuffling was worth it, team members said.
“Though telescope time for astronomers is very precious, the international nature and love of the unknown make astronomers very willing to override their own science and observations to follow up new, interesting discoveries like this,” discovery team leader Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.