The spacecraft captured a picture of the asteroid and its ''mini moon'' about 270 miles away.
In a remarkable discovery, NASA's spacecraft Lucy stumbled upon a surprising find during its visit to asteroid Dinkinesh. With its first flyby of the asteroid Dinkinesh, Lucy discovered it is not one single asteroid, but a system of two, with a small 220m-wide satellite spinning around it. The spacecraft captured a picture of the asteroid and its ''mini moon'' about 270 miles (434 km) away.
In data and images beamed back to Earth, the spacecraft confirmed that Dinkinesh is barely a half-mile (790 meters) across. It's closely circling moon is a mere one-tenth-of-a-mile (220 metres) in size.
''We knew this was going to be the smallest main belt asteroid ever seen up close. The fact that it is two makes it even more exciting,'' Keith Noll, an astronomer and Lucy project scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a news release.
Dinkinesh and its newfound moon live in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, roughly 300 million miles (480 million km) from Earth.
Han Levinson, who is the principal investigator for Lucy from Southwest Research Institute, said, “Dinkinesh really did live up to its name; this is marvellous''. Dinkinesh means ''you are marvelous'' in the Amharic language of Ethiopia.
''This is an awesome series of images. They indicate that the terminal tracking system worked as intended, even when the universe presented us with a more difficult target than we expected,'' said Tom Kennedy, guidance and navigation engineer at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado.
It will take up to a week for the team to downlink the remainder of the encounter data from the spacecraft. The team will use this data to evaluate the spacecraft's behavior during the encounter and to prepare for the next close-up look at an asteroid, the main belt asteroid Donaldjohanson, in 2025.
NASA sent Lucy past Dinkinesh as a rehearsal for the bigger, more mysterious asteroids out near Jupiter. The mission's main targets are a group of eight asteroids known as the Trojans. Launched in 2021, the spacecraft will reach the first of these so-called Trojan asteroids in 2027 and explore them for at least six years. The original target list of seven asteroids now stands at 11.
As per Live Science, Trojan asteroids are suspected to be made of the same ancient material that formed the outer solar system planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Studying them could reveal valuable clues about the formation of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago.