Astronomers Discover First Asteroid Orbited by Three Moons

by Matthew Memrick

Patient astronomers spotted an asteroid with three moons orbiting it recently, thanks to some data and an algorithm.

Scientists already identified two moons around the space rock labeled 130 Elektra. But then they didn’t give up looking at the asteroid, seeing a third moon roll around the hunk. The Sun reported on the galactic find.

Wouldn’t you like to have a high-powered telescope in your backyard and spend hours to find that third moon? Add some spirits, and boom, instant fun. See, good things do come to those who wait.

Elektra Asteroid Hanging Tight Between Two Planets  

So, early astronomers found this 124 to 160-mile wide floating mass in the 19th Century. A New York observatory in 1873 first spied and identified the massive rock.

Since then, many have set their eyes upon it. Somebody discovered one moon circling it in 2003, with a second moon identified in 2014.

The third moon was a little more tricky. That space rock is so bright, and it was hard to go by just sight to find that moon. 

Astronomers found the third by data from Chile’s European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. Oh, and they had a new algorithm too.

National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand researcher Anthony Berdeu looked over the 2014 data using the new data-processing algorithm. ScienceAlert also noted they ran the data through a newly developed data reduction pipeline to remove noise from the raw data with high efficiency.

They took the extended glow around the asteroid with the algorithm, called a halo, and removed it.

The man confirmed the two known moons and saw the third hiding faintly nearby. With the new data, researchers can say the asteroid is part of the busiest system out there.

“The discovery will help astronomers understand how these satellites form,” the European Southern Observatory said in a statement.

It will also “provide crucial information about planetary formation and evolution of our own solar system,” the observatory added.

Baby Moon Less Than A Mile Long

So, let us introduce you to S/2014 (130) 2. Catchy, huh? It’s less than a mile long and about 15,000 times fainter than Elecktra in the asteroid’s family pictures.

According to Science Alert, scientists are still working to determine its movement around the asteroid. 

The largest moon is almost 4 miles long and orbits the asteroid in an 807-mile orbit. The middle kid moon is over a mile long and rotates about 300 miles around that hunk of space rock.

Scientists say moons revolving around asteroids are not rare. They’re just hard to spot. There are about 150 asteroids with satellites gravitating toward them. Just for reference, there are more than 11,000,000 asteroids identified in space. 

Some scientists even say asteroids hitting Earth formed the landmasses and killed the dinosaurs. But hey, that’s a theory.