Telescopes Large and Small Team Up to Study Triple Asteroid

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Combining observations from the world’s largest telescopes with small telescopes used by amateur astronomers, a team of scientists discovered that the large main-belt asteroid (87) Sylvia has a complex interior, thanks to the presence of two moons orbiting the main asteroid, and probably linked to the way the multiple system was formed. The findings are being revealed today, October 7, at the 45th annual Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Denver, Colorado.

Sylvia Artist Impression
Artistic representation of the triple asteroid system showing the large 270-km asteroid Sylvia surrounded by its two moons, Romulus and Remus. Credit: Danielle Futselaar/SETI Institute
This work illustrates a new trend in astronomy in which backyard amateur astronomers team up with professional astronomers to expand our knowledge of our solar system. The study of multiple asteroids such as (87) Sylvia gives astronomers an opportunity to peek through the past history of our solar system and constrain the internal composition of asteroids. The two moons of (87) Sylvia were discovered in 2005.

The team, led by Franck Marchis, senior research scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute, has continued to observe this triple asteroid system by gathering 66 adaptive optics observations from 8-10m class telescopes including those at the W. M. Keck Observatory, the European Southern Observatory, and Gemini North.

“Because (87) Sylvia is a large, bright asteroid located in the main belt, it is a great target for the first generation of adaptive optics systems available on these large telescopes. We have combined data from our team with archival data to get a good understanding of the orbits of these moons,” Marchis said.

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