Nasa’s Lucy spacecraft discovers asteroid and its tiny moon during flyby

This image shows the “moonrise” of the satellite as it emerges from behind asteroid Dinkinesh as seen by the Lucy Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (L’LORRI), one of the most detailed images returned by NASA’s Lucy spacecraft during its flyby of the asteroid binary. This image was taken at 12:55 p.m. EDT (1655 UTC) Nov. 1, 2023, within a minute of closest approach, from a range of approximately 270 miles (430 km). From this perspective, the satellite is behind the primary asteroid. The image has been sharpened and processed to enhance contrast.
This image shows the “moonrise” of the satellite as it emerges from behind asteroid Dinkinesh as seen by the Lucy Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (L’LORRI), one of the most detailed images returned by NASA’s Lucy spacecraft during its flyby of the asteroid binary. This image was taken at 12:55 p.m. EDT (1655 UTC) Nov. 1, 2023, within a minute of closest approach, from a range of approximately 270 miles (430 km). From this perspective, the satellite is behind the primary asteroid. The image has been sharpened and processed to enhance contrast. NASA/Goddard/SwRI/Johns Hopkins APL/NOIRLab
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On Nov. 1, NASA’s Lucy spacecraft flew by not just its first asteroid, but its first two. The first images returned by Lucy reveal that the small main belt asteroid Dinkinesh is actually a binary pair.

“Dinkinesh really did live up to its name; this is marvelous,” said Hal Levison, referring to the meaning of Dinkinesh in the Amharic language, “marvelous.” Levison is principal investigator for Lucy from the Boulder, Colorado, branch of the San-Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute. “When Lucy was originally selected for flight, we planned to fly by seven asteroids. With the addition of Dinkinesh, two Trojan moons, and now this satellite, we’ve turned it up to 11.”

In the weeks prior to the spacecraft’s encounter with Dinkinesh, the Lucy team had wondered if Dinkinesh might be a binary system, given how Lucy’s instruments were seeing the asteroid’s brightness changing with time. The first images from the encounter removed all doubt. Dinkinesh is a close binary. From a preliminary analysis of the first available images, the team estimates that the larger body is approximately 0.5 miles (790 m) at its widest, while the smaller is about 0.15 miles (220 m) in size.

This encounter primarily served as an in-flight test of the spacecraft, specifically focusing on testing the system that allows Lucy to autonomously track an asteroid as it flies past at 10,000 mph, referred to as the terminal tracking system.

“This is an awesome series of images. They indicate that the terminal tracking system worked as intended, even when the universe presented us with a more difficult target than we expected,” said Tom Kennedy, guidance and navigation engineer at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado. “It’s one thing to simulate, test, and practice. It’s another thing entirely to see it actually happen.”

A series of images of the binary asteroid pair, Dinkinesh, as seen by the terminal tracking camera (T2CAM) on NASA’s Lucy spacecraft during its closest approach on Nov. 1, 2023. The images were taken 13 seconds apart. The apparent motion of the two asteroids is due to the motion of the spacecraft as it flew past at 10,000 mph (4.5 km/s). These images have been sharpened and processed to enhance contrast. NASA/Goddard/SwRI/ASU

A series of images of the binary asteroid pair, Dinkinesh, as seen by the terminal tracking camera (T2CAM) on NASA’s Lucy spacecraft during its closest approach on Nov. 1, 2023. The images were taken 13 seconds apart. The apparent motion of the two asteroids is due to the motion of the spacecraft as it flew past at 10,000 mph (4.5 km/s). These images have been sharpened and processed to enhance contrast.
NASA/Goddard/SwRI/ASU

 

While this encounter was carried out as an engineering test, the team’s scientists are excitedly poring over the data to glean insights into the nature of small asteroids.

“We knew this was going to be the smallest main belt asteroid ever seen up close,” said Keith Noll, Lucy project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The fact that it is two makes it even more exciting. In some ways these asteroids look similar to the near-Earth asteroid binary Didymos and Dimorphos that DART saw, but there are some really interesting differences that we will be investigating.”

It will take up to a week for the team to downlink the remainder of the encounter data from the spacecraft. The team will use this data to evaluate the spacecraft’s behavior during the encounter and to prepare for the next close-up look at an asteroid, the main belt asteroid Donaldjohanson, in 2025. Lucy will then be well-prepared to encounter the mission’s main targets, the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, starting in 2027.

What is the Lucy Mission?

Lucy is the first space mission to explore a diverse population of small bodies known as the Jupiter Trojan
asteroids. These remnants of our early solar system are trapped on stable orbits associated with – but not close to – the giant planet Jupiter. Trojan asteroids orbit in two “swarms” that lead and follow Jupiter in its orbit around the Sun and are thought to be comparable in number to the objects in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Over its 12-year mission, Lucy will explore a record-breaking number of asteroids: it will go by two in the belt of asteroids that circle the Sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and then 10 Trojans, which includes five asteroid targets and the satellites of three of those. Lucy also will fly by Earth three times to get a push from its gravity, making it the first spacecraft to return to the vicinity of Earth from the outer solar system.

This article is from NASA. Learn more about Lucy here.

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.