DPS 2001 meeting, November 2001
Session 51. Invited Review
Invited, Chair: M. Buie, Saturday, December 1, 2001, 9:00-9:40am, Regency E

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[51.01] Asteroid Satellites

W. J. Merline (SwRI)

Discovery and study of small satellites of asteroids or double asteroids can yield valuable information about the intrinsic properties of asteroids themselves and about their history and evolution. Determination of the orbits of these moons can provide precise masses of the primaries, and hence reliable estimates of the fundamental property of bulk density. This reveals much about the composition and structure of the primary and will allow us to make comparisons between, for example, asteroid taxonomic type and our inventory of meteorites. The nature and prevalence of these systems will also give clues as to the collisional environment in which they formed, and have further implications for the role of collisions in shaping our solar system.

A decade ago, binary asteroids were more of a theoretical curiosity. In 1993, the Galileo spacecraft allowed the first undeniable detection of an asteroid moon, with the discovery of Dactyl, a small moon of Ida. Since that time, and particularly in the last year, the number of known binaries has risen dramatically. Previously odd-shaped and lobate near-Earth asteroids, observed by radar, have given way to signatures indicating, almost certainly, that at least four NEAs are binary systems. The tell-tale lightcurves of several other NEAs reveal a high likelihood of being double. Indications are that among the NEAs, there may be a binary frequency of several tens of percent.

Among the main-belt asteroids, we now know of 6 confirmed binary systems, although their overall frequency is likely to be low, perhaps a few percent. The detections have largely come about because of significant advances in adaptive optics systems on large telescopes, which can now reduce the blurring of the Earth's atmosphere to compete with the spatial resolution of space-based imaging (which itself, via HST, is now contributing valuable observations). Most of these binary systems have similarities, but there are important exceptions. Searches among other dynamical populations such as the Trojans and KBOs are also proving fruitful.

Similarities and differences among the detected systems are thus revealing important clues about the possible formation mechanisms. There are several theories seeking to explain the origin of these binary systems, all of them involving collisions of one type or another, either physical or gravitational. It is likely that several of the mechanisms will be required to explain the observations.

Now that we have reliable techniques for detection, we have been rewarded with many examples of systems for study. This has in turn spurred new theoretical thinking and numerical simulations, the techniques for which have also improved substantially in recent years.

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