NASA’s Lucy mission set its sights on 1 asteroid. Found 2. | ET REALITY

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On Wednesday, NASA spaceship lucy approached its first asteroid target, and mission scientists were surprised to discover that the rock, called DinkineshThey were actually two rocks. The binary consists of a larger primary asteroid and a smaller “moon” orbiting it, as seen in images Lucy captured of the pair.

“We knew this was going to be the smallest main belt asteroid ever seen up close,” Keith Noll, an astronomer and Lucy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. Press release. “The fact that there are two of them makes it even more exciting.”

Lucy’s flyby was a stop for more ambitious goals: two groups of asteroids called Trojan swarms. The Trojans, remnants of the formation of the outer planets, are trapped in stable orbits of the sun along the same path as the planet Jupiter. Lucy will visit nine additional space rocks through 2033, part of NASA’s broader program. effort to gain knowledge about our heavenly neighborhood.

“Trojans are the last large population of objects that we have not yet seen up close,” said Thomas Statler, a NASA planetary scientist involved in the mission. “And Lucy is going to do that for the first time.”

NASA named the mission. after a skeleton discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia that revolutionized scientists’ understanding of human evolution. Similarly, “we hope that looking at these fossils of planetary origin will give us insight into the origins of our solar system,” Dr. Statler said.

Lucy’s meeting with Dinkinesh was fortuitous. When the mission launched in 2021, the hitherto unnamed asteroid was not part of Lucy’s space tour. But the mission team discovered that with a small adjustment to Lucy’s course in MayThe spacecraft could pass within 420 kilometers of the space rock, which was given Lucy’s skeleton’s Amharic name, Dinkinesh.

The goal of this encounter was not a scientific discovery, according to Hal Levison, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and principal investigator for the Lucy mission. Instead, he said, it was a flight test of Lucy’s asteroid tracking system. Minutes before her closest approach, which occurred around 12:55 pm ET on Wednesday, Lucy “locked on” to Dinkinesh and automatically adjusted to keep the rock in her field of vision.

Lucy zoomed past Dinkinesh at 10,000 miles per hour as her scientific instruments captured images of the asteroid’s surface and measured the composition and structure of the rock. Once finished, Lucy’s antenna swiveled toward the scientific team waiting anxiously on Earth.

Preliminary studies of Lucy’s first images of the binary asteroid pair indicate that the larger rock is about half a mile wide, while its satellite is about 0.15 miles wide.

Amy Mainzer, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who is not involved in the Lucy mission, said studying Dinkinesh could help explain how asteroids of similar size migrated close to Earth, some close enough to potentially pose a threat to our planet. .

But Lucy’s scientific goals go far beyond Earth’s vicinity. After circling the sun and encountering another main belt asteroid… This one is named after Donald Johanson.one of the paleontologists who discovered Lucy’s skeleton, the spacecraft will reach the Trojans in front of Jupiter in 2027. Another solar loop will take it to the swarm of asteroids following Jupiter in 2033.

Trojans are “actually very different from each other,” Dr. Levison said. “And that’s not what we expected when we started studying them.” Data that reveals more information about the conditions under which they formed could hold clues to support the theory that the outer planets first emerged much closer to the Sun and eventually dispersed into more stable, distant orbits.

But no matter what secrets the Trojans keep, the mission team hopes they will contribute to the knowledge that space rocks reveal about our cosmic beginnings. “There is no other asteroid,” said Dr. Statler. “Each one carries with it a memory from a different part of our solar system’s history.”

By reconstructing this history, he added, “we understand where we come from at the molecular level and how we are coupled to our solar system and our universe.”

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