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Last Updated: Friday, 17 October, 2003, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Rock lost in space for 66 years
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Lowell Observatory image
Back again, a cosmic return
Astronomers have seen a large asteroid that they first found 66 years ago and then lost in the depths of space.

It is called Hermes and it entered the record books by making a close approach to the Earth, just beyond the Moon.

But after only five days, it was lost because of the Sun's glare. Despite searches, it was never seen again.

Now scientists have spotted it once more - a faint dot in images taken by an observatory in Arizona. It was soon recognised as lost Hermes by its orbit.

Out of the darkness

Hermes was discovered by Karl Reinmuth at Heidelberg, Germany, on 28 October 1937. He tracked it for only five days and then lost it.

It became famous because it passed within 800,000 kilometres of the Earth - two Earth-Moon distances.

But after 66 years in the dark, Hermes is back.

Early on 15 October, Brian Skiff of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, US, found it again. At first, he did not realise it was Hermes.

"Since we find new near-Earth asteroids fairly regularly (I found, for instance, two other small asteroids also last night), my only reaction upon finding it was that it was unusually bright," he told BBC News Online.

Coming closer

At the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts - the clearing house for such observations - Timothy Spahr analysed the new object.

Taking other observations of it into account, he realised that it might be Hermes back once more in astronomers' telescopes.

Brian Skiff said: "Given that Hermes would have to appear about this time of year and the fact that it was bright led my colleague Tim Spahr to have a hunch about it.

"His quick action in arranging the follow-up, and his subsequent identification make him the one really responsible for the news."

Astronomers estimate that Hermes is about one to two kilometres across.

In a week or so it will be bright enough to be seen by amateur telescopes.

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