NASA scientists have made an intriguing discovery regarding an asteroid and its moon. Astonishingly, they have found that the small moonlet encircling the larger rock is not merely one moon, but two moons that are conjoined, resembling a snowman. This object is referred to as a contact binary, and it marks the first instance of observing one in orbit around an asteroid. While contact binaries are relatively prevalent within the Solar System, encountering them up-close is rare, let alone spotting one orbiting another asteroid.
The remarkable find was made possible by NASA's asteroid explorer, Lucy, presently traversing the primary asteroid belt. The spacecraft has diligently gathered data and, leading up to the encounter, noticed fluctuations in the asteroid's brightness, indicating the presence of a companion. Upon closer proximity, images ultimately confirmed the binary properties of the system. The larger asteroid boasts a width of 790 meters, while the moonlet measures a considerably smaller 220 meters. Nonetheless, the exact structure of the moonlet required further analysis, necessitating images taken from a greater distance. Subsequently, these images revealed a characteristic bi-lobed snowman shape. This discovery baffled scientists as they had anticipated the two components of the moonlet to possess differing sizes.
Lucy's mission involves studying asteroids that have remained unaltered since the early stages of the Solar System, thereby offering valuable insights into the formation of planets. By comprehending systems like Dinkinesh, it is hoped that we can shed light on this intricate process and its prevalence. Although the Dinkinesh system shares similarities with a recent asteroid examined by NASA, there also exist some intriguing distinctions. As Lucy continues its mission, its next objective revolves around another main belt asteroid in 2025 before embarking on its journey towards the Jovian Trojans.