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NASA’s Lucy space probe reaches its first destination — and encounters a surprise at asteroid Dinkenish

NASA’s Lucy space probe reaches its first destination — and encounters a surprise at asteroid Dinkenish

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NASA’s Lucy probe has been traveling in space for more than two years. Your visit to Asteroid Dinkenish looks different than you expected.

Washington, DC – In October 2021, NASA’s Lucy space probe blasted off to the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter. Now she has reached her first stop on the long journey – and given her research team on Earth a real surprise: the Dinkenish asteroid that Lucy passed by is not just one asteroid, but a double.

Dinkenish truly lived up to his name; “This is amazing,” says Lucy mission principal investigator Hal Levison. He points out the meaning of Dinkinesh in Amharic: “wonderful.” Dinkenish is a small asteroid that was just a blur in astronomers’ telescopes until Lucy’s brief visit. He has been on the target list since February 2023 Lucy is on her way to Jupiter’s Troy Fly towards.

NASA’s Lucy mission flies close to its first target: the asteroid Dinkenish

The actual target of NASA’s Lucy mission is the Trojan asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit. (Artist’s impression) © dpa/NASA/JPL-Caltech

“When Lucy was initially selected for the flight, we planned to fly by seven asteroids. With the addition of Dinkenish and the two Trojan satellites and now this satellite, we have increased the number to eleven. NASA announcement.

Dinkenish (+ companion)
52246 Donald Johansson
3548 Eurybates and the QUEta satellite
15094 Polymilli and the Xuan satellite
11351 Leukos
21,900 Urus
617 Patroclus and Menoetius

Before the flyby, experts suspected Dinkenish was a double asteroid

In fact, the mission team was already studying whether the asteroid might be a binary asteroid several weeks before Lucy arrived at Dinkenish. Because Lucy’s instruments witnessed changes in brightness as they approached the celestial body, which indicates this. And the first pictures of the encounter in space made all doubts disappear: Dinkenish is a double asteroid. NASA researchers estimate that the largest asteroid is about 790 meters across at its thickest point. The smaller asteroid is said to have a diameter of about 220 metres.

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The meeting between Lucy and Dinkenish was an important test

In addition to the surprise in space, the meeting between “Lucy” and Dinkenish was, above all, a test for the space probe: Are all the systems working? Can Lucy autonomously track an asteroid it is flying past at 16,000 kilometers per hour using a so-called “terminal tracking system”?

NASA and Lockheed Martin, developer of “Lucy,” are very satisfied with the initial results. “This is an exciting series of images. It shows that the ultimate tracking system is working as planned, even when the universe presented us with a more difficult target than we expected,” explains Lockheed Martin’s Tom Kennedy. “It’s one thing to simulate, test and practice. It’s another thing entirely to see what’s actually going on.

Asteroid Dinkenish in a photo taken by NASA's Lucy space probe.  Dinkenish consists of two asteroids.
Asteroid Dinkenish in a photo taken by NASA’s Lucy space probe. Dinkenish consists of two asteroids. © NASA/Goddard/SwRI/Johns Hopkins APL/NOAO

Lucy’s mission was successfully tested: the visit to Dinkenish was a success

The visit to Dinkenish was actually planned purely as a test, but the researchers involved are excited about the data. “We knew this would be the smallest main belt asteroid ever seen up close,” says Keith Noll. “The fact that there are two makes it even more exciting.” The NASA employee remembers the twin asteroids Didymos and Demorphos, which NASA’s Dart space probe visited about a year ago to conduct a planetary defense test. “But there are also some interesting differences that we will investigate,” Noll says.

A tight program awaits the “Lucy” space probe in the coming years: in December 2024, the space probe will approach Earth again and use its gravity to gain momentum. It will then fly into the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where Lucy is scheduled to fly by the roughly four-kilometre-sized asteroid 52246 Donald Johansson in April 2025.

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The space probe will then devote itself to its actual target, the Trojan asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit. The first flyby of Troy (3548 Eurybates) is scheduled for August 2027. “Lucy” will not visit its last asteroid until 2033

Meanwhile, NASA’s newest space probe is also on its way to its destination: “Psyche” is supposed to visit and explore the metallic asteroid of the same name. (unpaid bill)