Telescopes large and small team up to study triple asteroid

The study of multiple asteroids such as (87) Sylvia allows astronomers to peek through the history of our solar system and constrain the internal composition of asteroids.
By and | Published: October 7, 2013 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Artist's rendering of Sylvia triple asteroid system
Artistic representation of the triple asteroid system showing the large asteroid Sylvia surrounded by its two satellites, Romulus and Remus. The differentiated interior of the asteroid is shown through a cutaway diagram. The primary asteroid of the system may have a dense, regularly-shaped core, surrounding by a fluffy or fractured material. The two moons are shown to be strongly elongated, and composed of two lobes, as suggested by the recently observed occultation data by the satellite Romulus.
Danielle Futselaar/SETI Institute
Combining observations from the world’s largest telescopes with small telescopes used by amateur astronomers, a team of astronomers discovered that the large main-belt asteroid (87) Sylvia has a complex interior, probably linked to the way the multiple system formed.

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. In 2005, the triple asteroid was discovered to possess two moons.

The team, led by Franck Marchis from the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute in Montain View, California, has continued to observe this triple asteroid system by gathering 66 adaptive-optics observations from 8- to 10-meter-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.

With expert assistance from colleagues at the Institut de Mécanique Céleste et de Calcul des Éphémérides (IMCCE) of the Paris Observatory, the team developed an accurate dynamical model of the system, allowing them to predict the position of the moons around the asteroid at any time.

The “drop test” of this work was the prediction of the relative positions of the moons during an occultation January 6, 2013. Observers equipped with small telescopes located on a narrow path across the south of France, Italy, and Greece could see the triple system (87) Sylvia passing in front of a bright 11th-magnitude star. Such occultations allow exquisitely precise measurements of the relative positions and sizes of the occulting objects.

In collaboration with EURASTER, a group of amateur and professional astronomers, the team successfully motivated about 50 observers to watch the event. Twelve of them detected the occultation by the primary of the system, which lasted between four to 10 seconds, depending on the observer’s position on Earth.

“Additionally, four observers detected a two-second eclipse of the star caused by Romulus, the outermost satellite, at a relative position close to our prediction. This result confirmed the accuracy of our model and provided a rare opportunity to directly measure the size and shape of the satellite,” said Jérôme Berthier from IMCCE.

The chords of this occultation observations revealed that Romulus is 15 miles (24 kilometers) in diameter with an extremely elongated shape, possibly made of two lobes joined together like a dumbbell. This is not surprising if the satellite formed from the accretion of fragments created by the disruption of a proto-Sylvia by an impact several billion years ago.

The team derived the shape of the 170- mile-wide (270kms) primary asteroid Sylvia by combining data from the occultation of the asteroid with other sources of information. These included archived recordings of the variation of light caused by the spin of the asteroid and direct imaging by adaptive optics systems. Because the satellites’ orbits do not seem to be affected by the irregular shape of the asteroid, the team concluded that the large asteroid is most likely differentiated. The asteroid likely has a spherical core of dense material surrounded by a fluffy or fractured outer surface layer.

“Combined observations from small and large telescopes provide a unique opportunity to understand the nature of this complex and enigmatic triple asteroid system,” Marchis said. “Thanks to the presence of these moons, we can constrain the density and interior of an asteroid without the need for a spacecraft’s visit. Knowledge of the internal structure of asteroids is key to understanding how the planets of our solar system formed.”