A spacecraft named after a Beatles song got a surprise this week when it found a bonus mini asteroid.
On Wednesday, Nov. 1, NASA’s Lucy spacecraft flew by its target: a half-mile-wide asteroid named Dinkinesh.
However, the research team was met with the “exciting” discovery of a smaller space rock nearby.
The first images returned by Lucy reveal that Dinkinesh is actually a binary pair. It will take up to a week for the team to downlink the remainder of the encounter data from the spacecraft.
The exercise 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.
The mission is named after Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old fossil skeleton of a human ancestor discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. The find was nicknamed after the 1967 Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
“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.”
“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 the 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 changes with time.
The first images from the encounter removed all doubt that 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.
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.
“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.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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