A new algorithm reveals the first triple-moon asteroid ever discovered

This makes 130 Elektra the first "quadruple asteroid" system.
Chris Young
An artist's impression Elektra.Narit/Songkran K.

An asteroid once thought to have a pair of moons, actually has a third-wheel hitching a ride in the space rock's orbit.

An astronomer used a new data analysis algorithm to make the world-first discovery of an asteroid with three moons, a press statement explains.

It's not unknown for moons to orbit large asteroids, or for two space rocks to orbit each other as they hurtle through space. In fact, a double-asteroid system is the focus of NASA's ongoing DART mission, which will soon test an asteroid deflection strategy. However, the new discovery constitutes the first time observation has ever been made of an asteroid with so many orbital satellites.

Astronomers already knew the asteroid, called 130 Elektra, had two moons, but the third had not been spotted. That is until Anthony Berdeu of the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand developed a new data-processing algorithm and used it to take another look at data collected in 2014 by European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

The first observation of a quadruple asteroid system

Berdeu's algorithm not only confirmed the existence of the two known moons, but it was also able to detect the fainter signals from the third moon, which had previously remained hidden due to the brightness of the light emanating from 130 Elektra. In a new study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, titled "First observation of a quadruple asteroid", Berdeu explained that his team's algorithm could be applied to countless other collections of old telescope data to uncover hidden discoveries like the one orbiting Elektra. 

In its statement, the European Southern Observatory, said "the discovery will help astronomers understand how these satellites form and, in turn, provides crucial information about planetary formation and evolution of our own solar system." Elektra is located in our solar system's main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Any new discoveries pertaining to these, and other ancient space rocks in our vicinity, have the potential to reveal previously hidden discoveries regarding the early formation of our solar system.

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