NASA discovers a tiny moon orbiting the asteroid Polymele • The Register

NASA scientists working on the Lucy mission, humanity’s first exploration of the “Trojan” asteroids orbiting Jupiter’s Lagrange points, have found a moon around one of the asteroids the probe will visit.

Lucy launched in 2021 to embark on a 12-year journey that resulted in flybys of seven Trojan asteroids and one in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt. The Trojans are thought to have formed through the same process as planets, so experts are hoping they’ll tell them more about the beginnings of our solar system.

But in late March, NASA was able to add another celestial body to the list slated for observation — a moon orbiting the smallest of the mission’s Trojan asteroid targets, Polymele.

The moon was discovered during a campaign to study it while passing in front of a star, thus blocking the star’s light, a tactic that would lead to understanding the asteroid’s position, size and shape with high precision. The blockage or obscuration revealed the satellite.

“We were excited that 14 teams reported observing the star dying as it passed behind the asteroid, but when we analyzed the data we found that two of the observations were inconsistent with the others,” Marc said Buie, Head of Occult Science at Lucy. “These two observers spotted an object about 200 km (about 124 miles) from Polymele. It had to be a satellite.”

The Lucy team estimates that the satellite is about 5 km across, while Polymele itself is only 27 km at its widest point. Lucy has a long way to go to meet Polymele and its as yet unnamed satellite as they are approximately 480 million miles (770 million kilometers) away. In terms of travel time for the spacecraft, that means five years.

“These distances are roughly equivalent to searching for a quarter on a sidewalk in Los Angeles — while trying to spot it from a Manhattan skyscraper.” said NASA in its announcement of the discovery on Wednesday.

Polymele is the second of the mission-focused Trojan asteroids to have a moon sighted on it. A satellite was found orbits Eurybates in January 2020 via the Hubble Space Telescope.

All was not champagne and roses for the mission. A few hours after launch, the probe’s solar cells became visible Not fully deploy, a problem that could affect the spacecraft’s power system. Because the cameras were not aimed at the solar arrays, the flight operations team was hampered in diagnosing and solving the problem.

For months, computer models and existing data helped experts develop commands to provision and stabilize the array and continue for the next 11 years. ® NASA discovers a tiny moon orbiting the asteroid Polymele • The Register

Laura Coffey

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