London, Oct 29 Scientists may have confirmed two elusive clouds of dust first reported in 1961, located just 400,000 kilometres away from the Earth.
The clouds, named after Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski, are exceptionally faint, so their existence is controversial, said researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary.
The Earth-Moon system has five points of stability where gravitational forces maintain the relative position of objects located there, according to the study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Two of these so-called Lagrange points, L4 and L5, form an equal-sided triangle with the Earth and Moon, and move around the Earth as the Moon moves along its orbit.
L4 and L5 are not completely stable, as they are disturbed by the gravitational pull of the Sun. They are thought to be locations where interplanetary dust might collect, at least temporarily.
Kordylewski observed two nearby clusters of dust at L5 in 1961, with various reports since then, but their extreme faintness makes them difficult to detect and many scientists doubted their existence.
The team, led by Gabor Horvath from Eotvos Lorand University, modelled the Kordylewski clouds to assess how they form and how they might be detected.
The researchers were interested in their appearance using polarising filters, which transmit light with a particular direction of oscillation, similar to those found on some types of sunglasses.
They then set out to find the dust clouds. With a linearly polarising filter system attached to a camera lens and CCD detector at Judit Slíz-Balogh's private observatory in Hungary, the scientists took exposures of the purported location of the Kordylewski cloud at the L5 point.
The images they obtained show polarised light reflected from dust, extending well outside the field of view of the camera lens.
The observed pattern matches predictions made by the same group of researchers in an earlier paper and is consistent with the earliest observations of the Kordylewski clouds six decades ago, researchers said.
Horvath's group was able to rule out optical artifacts and other effects, meaning that the presence of the dust cloud is confirmed.
"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," Slíz-Balogh said.
"It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbour," Slíz-Balogh said.
Given their stability, the L4 and L5 points are seen as potential sites for orbiting space probes, and as transfer stations for missions exploring the wider solar system. SAR SAR