US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — The mission to NASA asteroids Lucy has already encountered a busy route on which she will visit seven different space rock targets. Now the team has discovered that one of these asteroids has a tiny companion.
The find came thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, which the team first used in 2018 to study a space stone called Eurybates. Like several of Lucy’s other mission objectives, Eurybates belongs to a group of asteroids known as Trojans that occupy roughly the same orbit around the Sun as Jupiter but cluster in front or behind the gas giant. Scientists wondered if Eurybates could have a satellite, but looking at Hubble’s pictures in 2018, they didn’t find anything – until the researchers reviewed the data in November 2019 and saw something interesting.
“We requested time from NASA to use the Hubble to confirm the find, and they gave us three attempts,” said Keith Knoll, Lucy’s space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “During the first two observations in December, we did not see anything, so we began to think that we might not be lucky. But the third observation in January 2020 confirmed our finding.”
Scientists working on the Lucy mission hope to look again at the satellite next month when Hubble sees him again. At the same time, they are focused on using the data they need to determine the satellite’s orbit around Eurybates, which should increase the chances of it being successfully observed during the next attempt.
What researchers still know is that the recently discovered cosmic stones are really tiny: according to the statement, the satellite is more than 6,000 times smaller than Eurybates, and the width is less than 1 km.
Lucy mission scientists hope that the newly discovered satellite – and the entire Trojan mission tour – will help them understand how the Solar System formed. These trojans are likely crumbs that slipped away during the formation of gas giants and became locked in these pockets of orbital stability, which means that these cosmic stones must contain the keys to the dawn of the solar system.
Scientists suggest that Eurybates and its tiny satellite can also be two pieces of a previously single breed, which means that studying the pair can help scientists understand what happens during asteroid collisions in the solar system.
“There are just a few famous Trojan asteroids with satellites,” said a statement by Thomas Statler, a Lucy program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington. According to NASA, this discovery should not affect Lucy’s plan, although the team behind the mission will constantly evaluate the situation to make sure that the spacecraft does not accidentally get too close to the asteroid and will not break into pieces.
Lucy is currently scheduled to launch in October 2021 on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, and she should only reach her first goal in 2027.
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