The Aten asteroids are a group of asteroids, whose orbit brings them into proximity with Earth. The group is named after 2062 Aten, the first of its kind, discovered by American astronomer Eleanor Helin at Palomar Observatory on 7 January 1976. Since then, more than 1,000 Atens have been discovered, of which many are classified as potentially hazardous asteroids. For a list of existing articles, see Aten asteroids (category) and List of Aten asteroids.
Aten asteroids are defined by having a semi-major axis of less than one astronomical unit (AU), the (roughly) average distance from the Earth to the Sun. They also have an aphelion (furthest distance from the Sun) greater than 0.983 AU. Asteroids' orbits can be highly eccentric. An Aten orbit need not be entirely contained within Earth's orbit, as nearly all known Aten asteroids have their aphelion greater than 1 AU although their semi-major axis is less than 1 AU. Observation of objects inferior to the Earth's orbit is difficult and this difficulty may be the cause of some sampling bias in the apparent preponderance of eccentric Atens. Aten asteroids account for only about 6% of the known near-Earth asteroid population. Many more Apollo-class asteroids are known than Aten-class asteroids, possibly because of the sampling bias.
The shortest semi-major axis for any known Aten asteroid is (325102) 2008 EY5 at 0.626 AU. The Aten asteroid with the smallest known perihelion is also the one with the highest known eccentricity: (137924) 2000 BD19 has an orbit with an eccentricity of 0.895, which takes it from a perihelion of 0.092 AU, well within Mercury's orbit, to an aphelion of 1.66 AU. For a brief time near the end of 2004, the asteroid 99942 Apophis (then known only by its provisional designation 2004 MN4) appeared to pose a threat of causing an Earth impact event in 2029, but earlier observations were found that eliminated that possibility. A very small possibility of impact remained for 2036, but this was also eliminated.
There are also sixteen known Apohele asteroids, traditionally listed as a subclass of Atens, but generally regarded a separate class of their own. Unlike Atens, Apoheles permanently stay within Earth's orbit and do not cross it.
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