James Webb Space Telescope tracks asteroid for the first time

NASA’s Next Generation Space Observatory successfully observed a moving asteroid as the telescope neared the end of its six-month commissioning period.

Successful tracking of a nearby object shows that the James Webb Space Telescope can track objects in the solar system, as well as distant galaxies, stars and other distant objects that it is expected to observe over its possibly 20-year lifetime.

“As we enter service, we will be testing other objects moving at different speeds to make sure we can study objects with Webb that move throughout the solar system,” NASA wrote. (will open in a new tab) in a May 19 blog post, adding that the observatory is “nearly ready” to begin scientific observations.

The agency noted that Webb’s ability to see nearby targets would allow him to observe everything from icy objects in the Kuiper belt to potentially habitable moons orbiting our solar system’s gas giants.

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The asteroid chosen for observation was 6841 Tenzing, a main belt asteroid named after Tenzing Norgay. The Tibetan mountaineer was one of the first two famous people to summit Everest with Edmund Hillary. Coincidentally, Webb’s observations were made just a few days before the 69th anniversary of their May 29, 1953, summit.

“Brian Holler of the Space Telescope Science Institute has selected about 40 possible asteroids for testing. [moving target] tracking,” wrote Heidi Hummel, a Webb multidisciplinary scientist specializing in solar system observations, in a blog post. (will open in a new tab).

Quoting Holler, Hummel said the team wanted to pick an asteroid “whose name is associated with success” as it seemed “easy” to refer to. (Hummel is also Vice President of Science for the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy and is best known for his decades of research on Uranus and Neptune.)

Comparison of views of the same part of the sky taken by NASA’s decommissioned Spitzer Space Telescope and the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right))

Webb faces several additional challenges when tracking a moving target, NASA says, such as having to switch between colder and hotter positions, which can affect the fine alignment of mirrors and instruments.

But Hammel said the science the telescope will bring to our outer solar system is worth the effort, especially for planets like Uranus and Neptune, which have only seen one spacecraft visiting these distant worlds so far. (Hummel participated in the 1989 Neptune flyby visualization campaign on NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft.)

“It was the absence [new] mission to these very distant worlds that got me involved with Webb many decades ago,” Hummel said. have been learning with other objects for decades.”

The James Webb Space Telescope could be tasked with observing Solar System planets such as the gas giant Uranus. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Other planned science targets in the solar system include the rings of Saturn, the atmosphere of Titan’s soupy moon, observations of several icy Kuiper Belt objects, and sporadic suspected plumes from the icy moon Europa in Hubble Space Telescope footage. Hummel said.

Europa is the target of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, and it’s likely that Webb’s observations will help this future spacecraft get its job done. “We plan to take high-resolution images of Europa to study its surface and look for plume activity and active geological processes,” Hummel said. “If we detect a plume, we will use Webb spectroscopy to analyze the composition of the plume.”

Webb is expected to complete commissioning around June, before entering an early scientific study period. Hammel noted that about 7% of Webb’s first year of observations would be devoted to the solar system.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) and on facebook (will open in a new tab).

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