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They capture images of Cleopatra, the asteroid shaped like a dog bone

A team of astronomers has obtained the sharpest and most detailed images yet of the asteroid Cleopatra using the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO’s VLT). Observations have further defined the shape and mass in 3D of this peculiar asteroid , which resembles a dog bone, with unprecedented precision in this piece of rock and the two moons that orbit it.

(216) Cleopatra is an unfamiliar M-type asteroid from the background population of the main asteroid belt that was discovered on April 10, 1880 by Johann Palisa, a famous Czech astronomer working at the Austrian Polish Naval Observatory located in Croatia. Its two small moons, named AlexHelios and CleoSelene (named after the children of the famous queen of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra), were discovered in 2008.

We’ve known about this incredible dog-bone-shaped space rarity for about two decades, but it’s the first time that scientists have obtained such detailed images of its physiognomy, helping us figure out how Cleopatra was formed.

To learn more about Cleopatra, the astronomers used snapshots of the asteroid taken at different times between 2017 and 2019 with the SPHERE ( Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch ) instrument at ESO’s VLT. As the asteroid spun, they were able to view it from different angles and create the most accurate 3D models of its shape to date . They identified the asteroid’s dog-bone shape and its volume, finding that one of the lobes was larger than the other and that the two are linked by a relatively thick neck, and determined that the asteroid’s length was about 270 kilometers o about half the length of the English Channel.


The results suggest that the moons were born from the rare asteroid’s own material. “Cleopatra is truly a unique body in our solar system,” said astronomer Franck Marchis of the SETI Institute and the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France and leader of the study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.Science comes a long way from studying strange outliers. I think Cleopatra is one of them and understanding this complex multi-asteroid system can help us learn more about our solar system.”

In addition, a second team has been able to calculate that the asteroid’s mass is 35% lower than previous estimates. By combining the new volume and mass estimates, the team was able to calculate a new value for the asteroid’s density, which, at less than half the density of iron, turned out to be lower than previously believed. Thus, Cleopatra’s mass is 2.97 x 1018 kilograms , when previous calculations had predicted 4.64 x 1018 kilograms.

Apparently it could have a porous structure , making it a “rubble heap” and likely formed when the material re-accumulated after a giant impact.

The asteroid rotates almost at a critical speed around 5.4 hours (effective gravity at the equator is low); above this speed it would begin to crumble, and even small impacts could lift stones from its surface. The researchers believe those pebbles could have subsequently formed AlexHelios and CleoSelene, meaning that Cleopatra could actually have given birth to her own moons.

“Cleopatra is a puzzling multiple system due to the unique characteristics of the primary,” the authors said. “This system certainly deserves special attention in the future, with the extremely large telescopes and possibly a dedicated space mission, to decipher its entire formation history.”



Referencia: F. Marchis et al. 2021. (216) Kleopatra, a low density critically rotating M-type asteroid. A&A 653, A57; doi: 10.1051/0004-6361/202140874

M. Brož et al. 2021. An advanced multipole model for (216) Kleopatra triple system. A&A 653, A56; doi: 10.1051/0004-6361/202140901

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