Moon orbiting ‘dinky’ asteroid is actually two tiny moons stuck together | Science & Technology

When NASA’s Lucy spacecraft flew past its first official target Dinkinesh in November 2023, researchers discovered that the asteroid — known as “Dinky” — was not alone in space. A satellite asteroid, which the team named “Selam,” was orbiting Dinky. As Lucy sent more data back to Earth, the researchers discovered something surprising: Selam was not just one moon, it was a contact binary — or two moons melded together.

The Lucy team, which includes University of Maryland Professor of Astronomy and Geology Jessica Sunshine, detailed the unexpected finding in a paper published in the journal Nature on May 29, 2024. The researchers noted that the unusual arrangement challenges existing theories about how asteroids and other celestial bodies formed over time and provides additional insight into the internal structure, dynamics and evolutionary history of both Dinky and Selam.

“There’s a lot more complexity in these small bodies than we originally thought,” said Sunshine, a co-author of the paper. “With the additional observations taken by the spacecraft, we were able to better analyze features such as Dinkinesh’s rotation speed and Selam’s orbit pattern. We also have a better understanding of what materials they’re possibly made of, bringing us a step closer to learning just how terrestrial bodies are created.”

Images taken by the Lucy spacecraft revealed a trough on Dinkinesh where about a quarter of the asteroid broke off from its main body, a ridge that formed after the asteroid’s structural failure and the contact binary now known as Selam (which was named after the child counterpart of the Lucy hominin fossil discovered in 1974). The team theorized that Dinky’s fast spinning motion — boosted by the uneven reflection of sunlight off the asteroid’s surface — caused it to shed and eject rocky debris into orbit. Some of the debris could have aggregated to form Selam, while another portion of the fragments rained back down on Dinky as boulders and created the…


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