New asteroid named after fossilised ‘baby’

A newly discovered asteroid satellite has been christened by the International Astronomical Union just a month after its discovery.

At the start of November, NASA’s Lucy spacecraft discovered a tiny satellite in orbit around the asteroid Dinkinesh.

While the term ‘satellite’ is commonly used to describe spacecraft in orbit around the Earth, it simply means a smaller object orbiting a larger one. Moons, for instance, are satellites.

Two near identical images of a binary asteroid system (one asteroid orbiting another).
A pair of stereoscopic images of the asteroid Dinkinesh and its satellite, Selam, created using data collected by the L’LORRI camera on the NASA Lucy spacecraft in the minutes around closest approach on Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: NASA/Goddard/SwRI/Johns Hopkins APL/NOIRLab for the original images/Brian May/Claudia Manzoni for stereo processing of the images.

That tiny moon has now been named by the IAU, which is responsible for maintaining naming conventions of newly discovered space bodies.

The new name is “Selam” or ሰላም, which means “peace” in Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia.

Baby names for tiny asteroids

Understanding the IAU’s new name for the discovered satellite requires the context of the Lucy mission itself.

Lucy was originally selected as part of NASA’s Discovery Program in 2015 and spent around six years in development prior to launching in October 2021.

The mission is named after the fossilised remains of a female Homo Australopithecus specimen uncovered in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974. “Lucy” allegedly received her name in reference to the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”.

While the English name for this important fossil references a popular song, the Amharic name given to the fossil is “Dink’inesh”, which means “you are marvellous” and was the inspiration for naming the larger of this asteroid system in February.

Concept of australopithecus afarensis, better known as lucy
Concept of Australopithecus afarensis, better known as Lucy. This model of her is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.Credit: Dave Einsel/Getty Images

So, why Selam for the newly discovered satellite?

It too references a set of fossilised H. Australopithecus remains discovered in the region. Selam is the near-complete skeleton of a 2.5-year-old child also found in Ethiopia, which is sometimes described as Lucy’s “baby”, although the juvenile actually lived about 100,000 years before Dink’inesh.

“It seemed appropriate to name its satellite in honour of another fossil that is sometimes called Lucy’s baby,” says Raphael Marshall a researcher at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in France. Marshall originally identified Dinkinesh as a suitable first target for the Lucy mission.

The IAU dubbed both asteroids in reference to the mission that targeted them, but that’s likely where the Amharic names are likely to end, at least for now.

Lucy is charting a course for the Jupiter trojans – clusters of asteroids that share the gas giant’s solar orbit. That means these objects either trail or precede Jupiter as it circles the Sun, rather than orbiting the planet. These targets already have names drawn from the Iliad legend of the Trojan War.

All going well it is expected to reach Trojan targets Eurybates and Queta in August 2027, Polymele in September 2027, Leucus in April 2028, Orus in November 2028, and finally Patroclus and Menoetius in March 2033.

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