Scientists working on NASA’s Lucy mission have discovered a new “mini-moon” orbiting a small asteroid near Jupiter.
The new rocky satellite could be confirmed as one of the smallest moons ever found.
“We were thrilled that 14 teams reported observing the star blink out as it passed behind the asteroid, but as we analyzed the data, we saw that two of the observations were not like the others,” said Marc Buie, Lucy mission occultation science lead at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
“Those two observers detected an object around 200 km (about 124 miles) away from Polymele. It had to be a satellite,” he added.
The new moon is estimated as roughly three miles (five kilometers) in diameter. Its orbit around the 17-mile (27-kilometer) Polymele satellite makes it too close to be spotted by traditional telescopes.
The confirmation of the new satellite as a moon may have to wait for some time. The Lucy probe is not expected to near the asteroid until 2027.
Lucy’s original mission expected to study seven asteroids over a 12-year period.
The Lucy probe launched on October 16, and its path will take it through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is expected to increase the known information regarding the distant space phenomena.
The new mini-moon is also not the first satellite Lucy has picked up during its travels. Another small moon-like body called Eurybates previously led to much attention from those leading the probe’s mission.
“There are only a handful of known Trojan asteroids with satellites, and the presence of a satellite is particularly interesting for Eurybates,” Thomas Statler, Lucy Program Scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement to Space.com in May. “It’s the largest member of the only confirmed Trojan collisional family — roughly 100 asteroids all traceable to, and probably fragments from, the same collision.”
In addition to the recent Lucy announcement, NASA has been busy preparing for its Artemis 1 launch on August 29. The unmanned rocket will mark the first flight to the moon in a half-century.
The Artemis 1 launch will include three mannequins riding in the seats where astronauts expect to sit in the next human launch to the moon in 2024 or 2025.
“Artemis 1’s primary mission is to validate the envelope of performance for the crew transportation system that will serve as our workhorse for the crew lunar and Mars missions,” said Pat Troutman, a designer and architect in NASA’s Moon to Mars architecture development office.
The Artemis 1 launch will also include a variety of science payloads to test for future missions, according to NASA. The space agency hopes the efforts will assist in both future missions to the moon as well as to Mars and in deep space exploration.