Have astronomers discovered an asteroid with three moons?

The uncertainty of science: According to a New York Times article published yesterday, astronomers have now discovered an asteroid with three moons, making it the first such asteroid ever discovered.

The asteroid, Electra, was first discovered in 1873, and orbits the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It was already known that it had two moons. The new research thinks it has found a third.

In reading the researchers’ the actual paper describing this research, it appears that the Times is spinning the data, making it sound more certain than it is. This new result comes entirely from new software that was designed to better resolve archival images of the asteroid, and thus carries a lot of uncertainty. From the paper’s conclusion:

[There remain] a lot of uncertainties remain concerning the orbit of S3 [the new asteroid moon]. More data on S2 and S3, as well as a more thorough dynamical study are necessary to solve the problem of the motion of the satellites of Elektra. However, the discovery of the first quadruple asteroid system slightly opens the way for understanding the mechanisms of the formation of these satellites.

In terms of data processing, S3 is barely visible in the data reduced with the standard pipeline and processed with standard halo removal algorithms and it was missed until now.

The paper repeatedly notes that the orbital data for Electra and its moons is presently “poorly constrained” and needs significant refinement in order to confirm this result.

If true, however, these moons are probably pieces that broke off of Electra at some point in the past, and could provide good information about the long term history of asteroids in the asteroid belt.