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Photo: Asteroid/dwarf planet Hygiea. Credit: ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

A new SPHERE/VLT image of Hygiea, which could be the Solar System’s smallest dwarf planet yet. As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it have enough mass that its own gravity pulls it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea. Credit: ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

Astronomers using ESO’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) have revealed that the asteroid Hygiea could be classified as a dwarf planet. The object is the fourth largest in the asteroid belt after Ceres, Vesta and Pallas. For the first time, astronomers have observed Hygiea in sufficiently high resolution to study its surface and determine its shape and size. They found that Hygiea is spherical, potentially taking the crown from Ceres as the smallest dwarf planet in the Solar System.

As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it has enough mass for its own gravity to pull it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea.

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the VLT, which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” says lead researcher Pierre Vernazza from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”

The team also used the SPHERE observations to constrain Hygiea’s size, putting its diameter at just over 430 km. Pluto, the most famous of dwarf planets, has a diameter close to 2,400 km, while Ceres is close to 950 km in size.

Surprisingly, the observations also revealed that Hygiea lacks the very large impact crater that scientists expected to see on its surface, the team report in the study published today in Nature Astronomy. Hygiea is the main member of one of the largest asteroid families, with close to 7,000 members that all originated from the same parent body. Astronomers expected the event that led to the formation of this numerous family to have left a large, deep mark on Hygiea.

“This result came as a real surprise as we were expecting the presence of a large impact basin, as is the case on Vesta,” says Vernazza. Although the astronomers observed Hygiea’s surface with a 95 percent coverage, they could only identify two unambiguous craters. “Neither of these two craters could have been caused by the impact that originated the Hygiea family of asteroids whose volume is comparable to that of a 100 km-sized object. They are too small,” explains study co-author Miroslav Brož of the Astronomical Institute of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

The team decided to investigate further. Using numerical simulations, they deduced that Hygiea’s spherical shape and large family of asteroids are likely the result of a major head-on collision with a large projectile of diameter between 75 and 150 km. Their simulations show this violent impact, thought to have occurred about 2 billion years ago, completely shattered the parent body. Once the left-over pieces reassembled, they gave Hygiea its round shape and thousands of companion asteroids. “Such a collision between two large bodies in the asteroid belt is unique in the last 3–4 billion years,” says Pavel Ševeček, a PhD student at the Astronomical Institute of Charles University who also participated in the study.

Studying asteroids in detail has been possible thanks not only to advances in numerical computation, but also to more powerful telescopes. “Thanks to the VLT and the new generation adaptive-optics instrument SPHERE, we are now imaging main belt asteroids with unprecedented resolution, closing the gap between Earth-based and interplanetary mission observations,” Vernazza concludes.

Image: a graphic depicting the orbit of asteroid 2015 TB145. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a graphic depicting the orbit of asteroid 2015 TB145. The asteroid will safely fly past Earth slightly farther out than the moon’s orbit on Oct. 31 at 10:05 a.m. Pacific (1:05 p.m. EDT and 17:05 UTC). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA scientists are tracking the upcoming Halloween flyby of asteroid 2015 TB145 with several optical observatories and the radar capabilities of the agency’s Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. The asteroid will fly past Earth at a safe distance slightly farther than the moon’s orbit on Oct. 31 at 1:05 PM EDT. Scientists are treating the flyby of the estimated 1,300-foot-wide asteroid as a science target of opportunity, allowing instruments on “spacecraft Earth” to scan it during the close pass.

Asteroid 2015 TB145 was discovered on Oct. 10, 2015, by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS-1 (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) on Haleakala, Maui, part of the NASA-funded Near-Earth Object Observation (NEOO) Program. According to the catalog of near-Earth objects (NEOs) kept by the Minor Planet Center, this is the closest currently known approach by an object this large until asteroid 1999 AN10, at about 2,600 feet in size, approaches at about 238,000 miles from Earth in August 2027.

“The trajectory of 2015 TB145 is well understood,” said Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “At the point of closest approach, it will be no closer than about 300,000 miles — 480,000 kilometers or 1.3 lunar distances. Even though that is relatively close by celestial standards, it is expected to be fairly faint, so night-sky Earth observers would need at least a small telescope to view it.”

The gravitational influence of the asteroid is so small it will have no detectable effect on the moon or anything here on Earth, including our planet’s tides or tectonic plates.

The Center for NEO Studies at JPL is a central node for NEO data analysis in NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program and a key group involved with the international collaboration of astronomers and scientists who keep watch on the sky with their telescopes, looking for asteroids that could be a hazard to impact our planet and predicting their paths through space for the foreseeable future.

“The close approach of 2015 TB145 at about 1.3 times the distance of the moon’s orbit, coupled with its size, suggests it will be one of the best asteroids for radar imaging we’ll see for several years,” said Lance Benner, of JPL, who leads NASA’s asteroid radar research program. “We plan to test a new capability to obtain radar images with two-meter resolution for the first time and hope to see unprecedented levels of detail.”

During tracking, scientists will use the 110-foot DSS 13 antenna at Goldstone to bounce radio waves off the asteroid. Radar echoes will in turn be collected by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, and the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center’s Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico. NASA scientists hope to obtain radar images of the asteroid as fine as about seven feet per pixel. This should reveal a wealth of detail about the object’s surface features, shape, dimensions and other physical properties.

“The asteroid’s orbit is very oblong with a high inclination to below the plane of the solar system,” said Benner. “Such a unique orbit, along with its high encounter velocity — about 22 miles per second — raises the question of whether it may be some type of comet. If so, then this would be the first time that the Goldstone radar has imaged a comet from such a close distance.”

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing within 30 million miles of Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The NEOO Program, sometimes called “Spaceguard,” discovers these objects, characterizes the physical nature of a subset of them, and predicts their paths to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet. There are no known credible impact threats to date — only the ongoing and harmless in-fall of meteoroids, tiny asteroids that burn up in the atmosphere.