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When NASA’s Lucy mission flew by its first asteroid this week, its cameras captured a shock.
The Lucy spacecraft zoomed by the small asteroid Dinkinesh, positioned in our photo voltaic system’s essential asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. However what astronomers thought was one asteroid is known as a binary pair of house rocks.
Hal Levison, principal investigator for Lucy on the Southwest Analysis Institute, mentioned Dinkinesh, which implies “marvelous” within the Amharic language of Ethiopia, “actually did dwell as much as its identify.”
“That is marvelous,” Levison mentioned in an announcement. “When Lucy was initially chosen for flight, we deliberate to fly by seven asteroids. With the addition of Dinkinesh, two Trojan moons, and now this satellite tv for pc, we’ve turned it as much as 11.”
Astronomers had their first hints that Dinkinesh may be a duo when Lucy’s instrument suite detected adjustments in brightness within the weeks main as much as the spacecraft’s shut method on Wednesday.
The Lucy group believes the bigger asteroid is a half-mile (805 meters) vast and the smaller house rock is 0.15 miles (220 meters) throughout.
Lucy got here inside 265 miles (425 kilometers) of the asteroid’s floor throughout its closest method Wednesday afternoon.
The shut method was designed to assist the Lucy spacecraft take a look at its suite of kit, together with its terminal monitoring system, which permits the spacecraft to find the house rock autonomously and maintain it inside view whereas flying by at 10,000 miles per hour (4.5 kilometers per second).
“That is an superior collection of photos. They point out that the terminal monitoring system labored as meant, even when the universe introduced us with a harder goal than we anticipated,” mentioned Tom Kennedy, steerage and navigation engineer at Lockheed Martin, in an announcement. (Lockheed Martin is a NASA associate on the Lucy mission.)
“It’s one factor to simulate, take a look at, and follow,” Kennedy added. “It’s one other factor solely to see it really occur.”
The information collected in the course of the flyby may even supply perception into small asteroids, offering a comparability with others that earlier NASA missions have noticed.
“We knew this was going to be the smallest essential belt asteroid ever seen up shut,” mentioned Keith Noll, Lucy challenge scientist from NASA’s Goddard House Flight Heart in Greenbelt, Maryland, in an announcement. “The truth that it’s two makes it much more thrilling. In some methods these asteroids look much like the near-Earth asteroid binary Didymos and Dimorphos that DART saw, however there are some actually attention-grabbing variations that we are going to be investigating.”
In September 2022, NASA’s DART mission deliberately slammed into Dimorphos, a small moon orbiting the near-Earth asteroid Didymos, to show the expertise wanted to change the trajectory of an area rock.
The information collected in the course of the Lucy mission flyby will proceed to return to Earth over the subsequent week. This data will assist the mission group put together for the spacecraft’s future asteroid flybys, together with a detailed encounter with one other essential belt asteroid referred to as Donaldjohanson in 2025.
Lucy’s essential objective is to discover Jupiter’s Trojan asteroid swarms, which have by no means been explored. The Trojan asteroids, which borrow their identify from Greek mythology, orbit the solar in two swarms — one which’s forward of Jupiter, the biggest planet in our photo voltaic system, and a second one which lags behind it.
Up to now, scientists’ essential glimpses of the Trojans have largely been artist renderings or animations as a result of the house rocks are too distant to be seen intimately with telescopes. Lucy will present the primary high-resolution photos of what these asteroids seem like.
Lucy is scheduled to succeed in the Trojan asteroids in 2027. Every of the asteroids Lucy is ready to fly by differ in dimension and shade.
The mission borrows its identify from the Lucy fossil, the stays of an historic human ancestor found in Ethiopia in 1974. The skeleton has helped researchers piece collectively features of human evolution, and NASA Lucy group members hope their mission will obtain an identical feat concerning the historical past of our photo voltaic system.
There are about 7,000 Trojan asteroids, and the biggest is 160 miles (257 kilometers) throughout. The asteroids are like fossils themselves, representing the leftover materials hanging round after the formation of large planets in our photo voltaic system, together with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
The mission will assist researchers peer again in time to learn the way the photo voltaic system shaped 4.5 billion years in the past and unlock how planets ended up of their present spots.