A Study of Multiplicity in Small Solar System Bodies

Grant #: AST-0807468
Senior Scientist: Franck Marchis

Senior Scientist: Franck Marchis

Ending years of speculation, new observational data have proven the existence of satellites of asteroids. These discoveries are an astronomical bonanza for observers and theorists alike, since they provide powerful constraints on theories of the origin of our solar system.

These discoveries have depended greatly on the development of very successful adaptive optics (AO) systems. AO systems correct in real time the blurring effect of atmospheric turbulence, providing images with an angular resolution close to the diffraction limit of the telescope. This new technology enables direct detection of companions around asteroids.

However, the sensitivity limit of the wavefront sensors of AO systems presently allow useful observations of only the brightest ~400 asteroids in the main-belt. This collaborative study continues and extends  the hunt for asteroid satellites using AO systems and innovative techniques, such as Laser Guide Star systems, now available on several 8-10m class telescopes.

In addition to a search for binary systems, this study characterizes the orbits of new and known binary systems in detail, to infer the internal structure of the asteroids which may presently only be speculated about following spacecraft mission flybys. The orbital elements derived from the data and the stability of the orbits is used to infer formation mechanisms of such binary systems (e. g. capture, fission, disruption, mass shedding). These in turn help constrain the condition and the composition of the proto-planetary environment, turning this study into one of cutting-edge scientific importance.

This interdisciplinary study involves scientists from different science and technical communities. It links modern observational techniques and data processing of high angular resolution images to the study of the interior structure of asteroids. Furthermore, it enables complex ephemeris calculations.