Romanian astronomer helps unlock the mystery of "the golf ball asteroid" Pallas

Dr. Mirel Birlan, researcher at Paris Observatory and the Astronomical Institute of the Romanian Academy is part of a team of researchers that has looked up-close at the Pallas asteroid, the third largest object in the asteroid belt, to better understand its unusual tilted orbit. The team discovered that the surface of the asteroid is so cratered, that researchers dubbed it “the golf ball asteroid”. The research team believes that the craters are a consequence of a violent period of collision during its history and that this could also explain the unusual inclination of its orbit that has puzzled scientists for centuries.

The Pallas asteroid is almost one-seventh the size of the Moon. For centuries, astronomers have noticed that the asteroid orbits along a significantly tilted track compared with the majority of objects in the asteroid belt. This inclination remained a mystery for a long time. Now a European team, led by principal investigator Pierre Vernazza from the Laboratoire d'Astrophyisque de Marseille in France, and including Dr. Mirel Birlan, obtained images of Pallas using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), an array of four telescopes, each with an 8-meter-wide mirror, situated in the mountains of Chile.

The high resolution images show a very cratered surface of the asteroid. In addition, the researchers created a reconstructed 3D model of the shape of the asteroid, revealing a heavily cratered object on the poles, but also at the equatorial regions. The researchers identified 36 craters larger than 30 kilometres in diameter, covering more than 10% of its surface — proof that Pallas experienced a violent period of collision during its history, two to three times more intense than the one of other large asteroids like Ceres or Vesta. The heavily cratered surface explains also the preservation of its initial shape after the formation. This collisional period could also explain Pallas’ tilted orbit.

The images of the asteroid have also revealed a bright spot on the surface of Pallas. The most probable explanation of this finding and its origin is that Pallas has large deposits of salts at its surface, most probably formed by a mixture of water and silicates. The investigations carried out by the European team have also led to the discovery of the Pallas family of asteroids, a cluster of small asteroids. Simulations of impacts with Pallas suggest that this family could be the result of a violent collision about 1.7 billion years ago by an object having a diameter between 20 km and 40 km. Asteroid 3200 Phaeton, identified as the source of the Geminids meteor shower, which is observed on Earth in December, is part of the Pallas family, and could provide clues to understanding the origin of the parent body, Pallas. Thus, observing meteors and collecting meteorites coming from Phaeton could partly solve the history of Pallas.

The findings were published in Nature Astronomy

VLT image of Pallas (Marsset et al., Nature Astronomy, 2020)
Dr. Magda Stavinschi during her speech about Nicolae Donici

International Astronomical Union celebrates the Romanian astronomer, Nicolae Donici

  • The Romanian Embassy in Paris in collaboration with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), organized a celebrating event for a great figure and a pioneer of the Romanian astronomy, Nicolae Donici. Among the guests who attended this event were Prof. Dr. Ewine Van Dishoeck, the President of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), dr. Magda Stavinschi, honorary researcher at the Astronomical Institute of the Romanian Academy, His Excellency Luca Niculescu, the Romanian Ambassador in France, scientists, diplomats and students.

  • Author of many essential books about the Romanian astronomy and science including one about the personality of Nicolae Donici, dr. Magda Stavinschi evocated for the participants his scientific achievements and contribution to the development of astronomy in Romania and abroad.

  • Among the speakers at the event, His Excellency Luca Niculescu, the Romanian Ambassador in France, underlined the fact that Romania became a member of the UAI in 1922, due to the actions undertaken by Nicolae Donici.

  • The President of the UAI, Prof. dr. Ewine Van Dishoeck, presented the scientific role of Nicolae Donici in the middle of the great developments which happened worldwide in the last century of astronomy, since the foundation of the International Astronomical Union.

  • Nicolae Donici is one of the founders of modern Romanian astronomy. He was born in 1874 at Petricani, near Chişinău, in Bessarabia (east Moldova), a Romanian speaking province occupied at the time by the Russian Empire. His scientific work began at the Imperial Academy in Sankt Petersburg and at Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory. In 1908, he built a personal observatory on his manor at Dubăsarii Vechi in Bessarabia. At the time, Nicolae Donici was one of the greatest scholars in the world specialized in solar observations. He was the first Romanian who became a member of the International Astronomical Union and due to him, Romania became one of the first members of this astronomical international association in 1922. In the same year, Nicolae Donici became a honorary member of the Romanian Academy.

  • Berthelot Observatory receives MPC observatory code

    Berthelot Observatory is a remote observing station of the Astronomical Institute. Built on General Berthelot village, Hunedoara, on a protected area belonging to the Romanian Academy, the observatory is operated in remote mode from Bucharest. Following the first light in mid-November 2018, the observatory is currently involved in near-Earth objects photometric surveys and tracking and surveillance activities in the framework of EU-SST programme of the European Commission.

    The telescope is a RC 14.5'' F/7 Optical Guidance System on a fast, 8°/s, equatorial mount able to track objects on medium Earth orbits. The field of view, using an SBIG STL11000M CCD camera, is of 44'x30'.

    Berthelot Observatory successfully concluded the first common European exercise of space surveillance and tracking taking place from 15 to 24 July 2019. Astrometry data for the four assigned targets was provided daily in TDM format.

    On December 6th, Berthelot Observatory received the code L54 from the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center (MPC).

    Berthelot observatory
    The current population (as of October 2019) of satellites and space debris

    Astronomical Institute in ESA-funded projects

    The Institute was recently involved in two new ESA-funded research and development projects. Cheia Antenna Retrofit Phase II is a project led by RARTEL Telespazio, a Leonardo and Thales company, aiming to include the 32 meters antennas presently available at the Cheia Satellite Ground Station, in the context of European SSA programme. The Institute will assist RARTEL in all the project phases (design, software development, integration and testing) for all the aspects related to the tracking services which shall be supplied through the newly developed radar infrastructure.

    SYNOPTES project, led by Romanian InSpace Engineeering startup and having both Cluj and Bucharest observatories as partners, is developing a GNSS-based real-time clock (RTC) system for the temporal synchronization of SST ground based observations. Berthelot and Feleacu astronomical stations are the testing beds and on-sky validation infrastructures of the technical solution. Contact: nedelcu (at)


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