A near-Earth asteroid that was first sighted in 1991 and has sparked stories of extraterrestrial fly-bys since has been identified as just a plain old rock.
It's not the kind of answer that most would hope for but at least mystery surrounding the 20 meter-diameter object dubbed 1991 VG has finally been solved. The asteroid 1991 VG was first spotted by US astronomer James Scotti in November of that year.
It initially attracted attention for a couple reasons. First, it was awfully close to Earth! Astronomers calculated within a few weeks of its discovery that it was slated to pass just 450,000 kilometers from the Earth.
Secondly, 1991 VG showed a curious heliocentric orbit similar to the one the Earth is on. This isn't unprecedented, but it is unusual according to astronomers.
Initially, astronomers considered 1991 VG simply a newly discovered small asteroid, but others weren't convinced. It was Scotti himself who suggested that based its orbital patterns it could be a spacecraft returning to Earth.
Researchers who looked closely at it discovered its light curve, the way light reflected off it in multiple images and determined it may actually have reflective side panels and was possibly a tumbling satellite.
Soon, the narrative had shifted from a new asteroid to a human-made satellite and finally to an alien one. The asteroid returned as predicted in August but by that time astronomers had gained a greater understanding of the behavior and frequency of small asteroids.
Carlos and Raul de la Fuente Marcos of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain published a <a href="https://academic.oup.com/mnras/article-abstract/473/3/2939/4265379?redirectedFrom=fulltext">paper</a> on that touched on the asteroid and they say the object "was briefly captured by Earth's gravity as a mini-moon during its previous fly-by in 1991-1992."
The paper concludes by saying, "All this evidence confirms that there is no compelling reason to believe that 1991 VG is not natural."
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