As NASA’s Lucy spacecraft recently made its approach toward the asteroid Dinkinesh, the first object it would pass close enough to for such a near flyby, NASA technicians got a surprise: it wasn’t alone.
The November 1, 2023 flyby revealed not just one asteroid, but two of them, as images returned by Lucy revealed Dinkinesh to be a binary pair, with a smaller, previously hidden satellite that had been lurking in its orbit.
NASA’s Lucy spacecraft was launched with the mission of exploring a collection of primitive asteroids currently orbit at the same distance from the Sun as Jupiter that are known as Trojan asteroids.
“When Lucy was originally selected for flight, we planned to fly by seven asteroids,” said Hal Levison, principal investigator for NASA’s Lucy mission Southwest Research Institute’s Boulder, Colorado branch.
“With the addition of Dinkinesh, two Trojan moons, and now this satellite, we’ve turned it up to 11,” Levison said in a statement.
Although Lucy’s recent flyby confirmed that Dinkinesh had a satellite accompanying it, there had already been a few indicators that hinted at the possibility that the asteroid was a binary.
A major clue had been that Dinkinesh’s brightness seemed to gradually change when observed from a distance, a feature that can be commonly explained by the movement of a secondary object in orbit around a larger one like Dinkinesh and its companion.
Based on analysis of the first images Lucy dispatched back from its encounter, Dinkinesh’s larger body is around 0.5 miles in width, while its satellite is close to one-third the size of its host asteroid…
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