NASA OBSERVATORIES TEAM REVEAL RARE DOUBLE ASTEROID
New observations by three of the world‘s largest radio telescopes have revealed that an asteroid discovered last year is actually two objects, each about 3,000 feet (900 meters) in size, orbiting each other.
Near-Earth asteroid 2017 YE5 was discovered with observations provided by the Cadi Ayyad University Morocco Oukaimeden Sky Survey on Dec. 21, 2017, but no details about the asteroid's physical properties were known until the end of June. This is only the fourth "equal mass" binary near-Earth asteroid ever detected, consisting of two objects nearly identical in size, orbiting each other. The new observations provide the most detailed images ever obtained of this type of binary asteroid.
On June 21, the asteroid 2017 YE5 made its closest approach to Earth for at least the next 170 years, coming to within 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) of Earth, or about 16 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. On June 21 and 22, observations by NASA's Goldstone Solar System Radar (GSSR) in California showed the first signs that 2017 YE5 could be a binary system. The observations revealed two distinct lobes, but the asteroid's orientation was such that scientists could not see if the two bodies were separate or joined. Eventually, the two objects rotated to expose a distinct gap between them.
Scientists at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico had already planned to observe 2017 YE5, and they were alerted by their colleagues at Goldstone of the asteroid's unique properties. On June 24, the scientists teamed up with researchers at the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) in West Virginia and used the two observatories together in a bi-static radar configuration (in which Arecibo transmits the radar signal and Green Bank receives the return signal). Together, they were able to confirm that 2017 YE5 consists of two separated objects. By June 26, both Goldstone and Arecibo had independently confirmed the asteroid's binary nature.
The new observations obtained between June 21 and 26 indicate that the two objects revolve around each other once every 20 to 24 hours. This was confirmed with visible-light observations of brightness variations by Brian Warner at the Center for Solar System Studies in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
Radar imaging shows that the two objects are larger than their combined optical brightness originally suggested, indicating that the two rocks do not reflect as much sunlight as a typical rocky asteroid. 2017 YE5 is likely as dark as charcoal. The Goldstone images taken on June 21 also show a striking difference in the radar reflectivity of the two objects, a phenomenon not seen previously among more than 50 other binary asteroid systems studied by radar since 2000. (However, the majority of those binary asteroids consist of one large object and a much smaller satellite.) The reflectivity differences also appear in the Arecibo images and hint that the two objects may have different densities, compositions near their surfaces, or different surface roughnesses.