Venus “Quasi-moon” Just Got a Name. Henceforth, it Shall be Called Zoozve.

Ask any astronomer, and they will tell you that all of the planets in the Solar System (including those “dwarf planets”) have satellites, with the exception of Mercury and Venus. However, that is not entirely the case, as Venus has what is known as a “quasi-moon” – a large asteroid that orbits the planet but is not gravitationally bound to it. In 2002, astronomer Brian Skiff discovered this body using the Discovery Telescope at the Lowell Observatory (where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto). Until recently, this object was known by its official designation, 2002VE68.

However, on February 5th, 2024, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) conferred a new name for the object: Zoozve. The name was announced in a bulletin (vol. 4, no. 5) issued by the IAU’s Working Group for Small Bodies Nomenclature (WGSBN). The IAU, which is responsible for naming celestial objects, traditionally prefers to assign names that come from mythological traditions to objects that cross Earth’s orbit. But in this case, the origins of Zoozve’s strange name are more of (to quote Bob Ross) a “happy accident,” where a children’s poster that showed the object led to a conversation and an official request.

First, a little bit about the object in question and others that share the designation of “quasi-moon.” As noted, the name refers to objects that orbit larger bodies but are not gravitationally bound to them. While Zoozve orbits the Sun, it also swings around Venus in a complex pattern that (when visualized) resembles a set of wings. Because its orbit is unstable, it will eventually be ejected from its quasi-satellite orbit. Because Zoozve also crosses Earth’s orbit and measures 230 meters (750 feet) in diameter, it’s considered a near-Earth asteroid (NEA) and a potentially hazardous object.

The orbital path of Zoozve, formerly known as Asteroid 2002VE68. Credit: Phoenix7777/HORIZONS system/JPL/NASA

The name was proposed by Latif Nasser, a science communicator and the co-host of the podcast series Radiolab. As he was putting his child to bed one night, he noticed a poster on their wall featuring a satellite with the name “ZOOZVE” orbiting it. The poster was the work of Alex Foster, a professional artist who creates maps and illustrations for websites, books, prints, and posters. While researching the Solar System for this particular poster, he made a note about 2002VE68 and later misread it as “ZOOZVE.”

As Nasser related in a recent episode of Radiolab (which aired on January 26th), he began investigating this curious detail. He began by contacting NASA to ask them about it but was told they had never heard of Zoozve and insisted that Venus had no moons. His investigation eventually led him to Skiff and the staff at the Lowell Observatory, who he convinced to appeal to the IAU to officially rename the object Zoozve. The IAU complied and on Monday, February 5th, announced the quasi-moon’s new name. As the WGSBN described it in their bulletin:

“This object is the first-identified quasi-satellite of a major planet (Venus). When artist Alex Foster drew this object on a solar system poster for children, he mistook the initial characters of the provisional designation as letters, thus coining an odd and memorable moniker. Name suggested by Latif Nasser.”

While such objects have been predicted in the past, none were discovered until Skiff observed and tracked the orbit of Zoozwe in 2002. Since then, a similar body has been observed around Neptune, while seven quasi-moons have been spotted around Earth. What’s more, this may be the first time that an official has been assigned based on a simple and fortunate mistake and some serious amateur sleuthing!

Further Reading: The Planetary Society