NASA’s Lucy spacecraft stumbled upon an unexpected bonus find during its recent flyby of the asteroid Dinkinesh. New images confirmed Dinkinesh is not one lone asteroid, but actually two asteroids – a larger 790m asteroid orbited by a smaller 220m “moon.”
The chance double asteroid detection has scientists excited about Lucy’s capabilities and future asteroid encounters still to come.
Tiny Moon Spotted Orbiting Small Asteroid
As Lucy conducted observations from 270 miles away, data beamed back provided the first clear signs Dinkinesh was a binary system.
Lucy’s images captured the half-mile wide main asteroid with a mini “moon” one-tenth of a mile in diameter closely circling it.
This is why we explore. Turns out that asteroid Dinkinesh is… asteroids Dinkinesh? During the #LucyMission’s first asteroid flyby on Nov. 1, we discovered that the main belt asteroid is a party of two, or binary pair! https://t.co/3aYWLvWmOw pic.twitter.com/IX2ZHHtRdK
— NASA Solar System (@NASASolarSystem) November 2, 2023
The surprise doubles the value of the Dinkinesh flyby, providing insights into tiny asteroid moons. Researchers were expecting Lucy to encounter the smallest solo asteroid ever visited up close.
Ideal Dry Run Before Main Asteroid Targets
Lucy’s team considered the Dinkinesh rehearsal vital preparation for the spacecraft’s 2027 arrival at the mission’s main belt asteroid targets.
While unexpectedly finding Dinkinesh was a binary improved Lucy’s practice run, confirming the spacecraft’s tracking capabilities.
Researchers will spend a week analyzing all encounter data to assess Lucy’s performance before its 2025 flyby of asteroid Donaldjohanson.
Dinkinesh’s New Moon Offers Bonus Scientific Opportunity
Beyond honing Lucy’s approach, detecting Dinkinesh’s moon also provides unplanned science value.
The moon’s dimensions and orbit can reveal information about the system’s mass, formation and evolution.
Researchers are thrilled to conduct dual asteroid research they hadn’t anticipated. Dinkinesh’s bonus moon offers more insights.
Lucy Prepping for Larger Main Belt Asteroid Targets
Lucy’s prime focus remains studying the Trojan asteroids out near Jupiter, which it will reach in 2027.
The ancient Trojans are relics from the outer solar system‘s formation, making their composition intriguing to scientists.
But first, the Dinkinesh and Donaldjohanson flybys ready Lucy’s instruments for its deep space encounters still ahead.
Chance Discovery Highlights Lucy’s Potential
The mission team emphasized Lucy fortuitously exposing Dinkinesh’s dual identity so early into its 12-year voyage.
The unplanned revelation showcases Lucy’s capabilities to unveil asteroid secrets through its pioneering mission.
As the first spacecraft to visit Jupiter’s Trojans, Lucy has ample opportunity for further unexpected discoveries.
Dinkinesh, which means “you are marvelous” in Amharic, clearly lived up to its name by delivering this double delight.