'Lucy's Baby' asteroid is only about 2 to 3 million years old

A newly discovered asteroid is a toddler in space years. The moon around the small asteroid Dinkinesh called Selam is about 2 to 3 million years old. Scientists arrived at this age estimate using new calculation methods described in a study published April 19 in the journal Astronomy and astrophysics.

Selam is nicknamed 'Lucy's baby', after NASA's Lucy spacecraft discovered it orbiting another asteroid in November 2023. The Lucy mission is the first to explore the Trojan asteroids. This is a group of approx 7,000 primitive space rocks in orbit around Jupiter. Lucy is expected to provide the first high-resolution images of these space rocks. Dinkinesh and Selam are in the Main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Discovering a small moon was a surprise. According to study co-author and Cornell University aerospace engineering doctoral student Colby Merrill, Selem turned out to be “an extraordinarily unique and complex body.” Selem is one contact binary which consists of two lobes that are piles of rubble stuck together and is the first such asteroid ever observed. Scientists believe that Selam formed from surface material ejected by Dinkinesh's rapid rotation.

[Related: NASA spacecraft Lucy says hello to ‘Dinky’ asteroid on far-flying mission.]

“Finding the ages of asteroids is important to understanding them, and this one is remarkably young compared to the age of the solar system, meaning it formed somewhat recently,” Merrill said in a statement. “Getting the age of this one body can help us understand the population as a whole.”

Nasty estimate its agethe team studied how Dinkinesh and Selam moved in space – or within it dynamics. Binary asteroids like this pair are locked in a galactic tug-of-war. The force of gravity acting on the objects causes them to physically bulge and results in tides similar to what Earth's oceans have. The tides slowly reduce the energy of the system. At the same time, the sun's radiation also changes the energy of the binary system. This solar change is known as the Binary Yarkovsky-O'Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack (BYORP) effect. The system will eventually reach equilibrium, where the tides and BYORP are of equal strength.

Assuming the forces between the two were balanced and plugging in asteroid data from the Lucy mission, the team calculated how long it would have taken for Selam to reach its current state after it formed. The the team said that they improved already existing equations that assumed that both bodies in a binary system are equally dense and did not take into account the mass of the secondary body. Their computer simulations performed about 1 million calculations with various parameters and found an average age of 3 million years old, with 2 million being the most likely result. This calculation too agreed with one of the Lucy mission based on a more traditional method of dating asteroids based on an analysis of their surface craters.

According to the teamStudying asteroids in this way does not require a spacecraft like Lucy to take close-up images, saving money. It could be more accurate in cases where an asteroid's surfaces have undergone recent changes from space travel. Since about 15 percent of all asteroids near Earth are binary systems this method can also be used to study other secondary celestial bodies such as the moon Dimorphos. NASA deliberately crashed a spacecraft into Dimorphos in September 2022 to test planetary defense technology.

[Related: NASA’s asteroid blaster turned a space rock into an ‘oblong watermelon.’]

“Combined with crater counting, this method could help better constrain the age of a system,” said co-author and PhD student in astronomy at Cornell University Alexia Kubas said in a statement. “If we use two methods and they agree, we can be more confident that we are getting a meaningful age that describes the current state of the system.”

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