It turns out that the smallest of the asteroids that NASA’s spacecraft Lucy plans to visit has a satellite.
NASA’s Lucy mission to study Jupiter and the Trojan asteroids around it began in October when the spacecraft left Earth. The spacecraft, which will encounter the asteroids in 2025, has already managed to surprise everyone with the data it has already obtained.
Asteroids host smaller satellites
Teams working on one of NASA’s newest spacecraft have made an unexpected discovery years before reaching its final destination. It turns out that the smallest of the asteroids the spacecraft plans to visit has a satellite.
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On March 27, 2022, 26 different teams made observations at different points around the world to study one of Lucy’s targets, the asteroid Polymele, as it passed in front of a star. In this way, the observers, who aimed to calculate the exact distance, size and shape of Polymele, encountered an unexpected sight.
During this observation, some of the teams spotted a celestial object about 200 kilometers away from Polymele. Scientists identified this object as a satellite and calculated its diameter to be 5 kilometers. By comparison, the Polymele asteroid is about 27 kilometers long at its widest point.
The discovery reveals that there may be satellites even around very small asteroids. The Lucy team has encountered a similar event before, but the frequent occurrence of this situation may cause the Lucy mission to proceed differently than planned.
In January 2021, images from the Hubble Space Telescope revealed that the Trojan asteroid Eurybates was also surrounded by a smaller satellite. Following all these developments, the mission description of Lucy, which set out with the slogan “12 years, 7 asteroids and 1 spacecraft”, seems to change as time progresses.