NASA’s Next Generation Space Observatory has successfully observed a moving asteroid as the telescope nears the end of its six-month commissioning period.
Successful tracking of near object shows James Webb Space Telescope can monitor solar system objects as well as galaxies, stars and other distant objects it is expected to observe during its roughly 20-year lifespan .
“As we move forward with the commissioning, we will test other objects moving at different speeds to verify that we can study with Webb moving objects throughout the solar system,” NASA wrote. . (opens in a new tab) in a blog post on May 19, adding that the observatory is “almost ready” to begin scientific observations.
Webb’s ability to see nearby targets will allow him to observe everything from icy Kuiper Belt objects to potentially habitable moons surrounding gas giant planets in our solar system, the agency noted.
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The asteroid selected for the observing exercise was 6841 Tenzing, a main-belt asteroid named after Tenzing Norgay. The Tibetan mountaineer was one of the first two known individuals to climb Mount Everest, alongside Edmund Hillary. Coincidentally, the Webb sightings took place a few days before the 69th anniversary of their peak on May 29, 1953.
“Bryan Holler of the Space Telescope Science Institute had about 40 possible asteroids to choose from to test the [moving target] tracking,” said Heidi Hammel, Webb Interdisciplinary Scientist for Solar System Observations, in the blog post. (opens in a new tab).
Quoting Holler, Hammel said the team wanted to pick an asteroid “with a name tied to success” because invoking it seemed “a no-brainer”. (Hammel is also vice president for science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy and best known for decades of research regarding Uranus and Neptune.)
Webb faces a few additional challenges with tracking a moving target, NASA said, such as the need to transition from slightly cooler to warmer attitudes that can affect the delicate alignment of mirrors and instruments.
But Hammel said the science the telescope will bring to our outer solar system is worth it, especially for planets such as Uranus and Neptune which have only seen one spacecraft visit these distant worlds until now. here. (Hammel participated in the 1989 Neptune flyby imaging campaign of that NASA spacecraft, Voyager 1.)
“It was the lack of [new] mission to those very distant worlds that involved me with Webb so many decades ago,” Hammel said. “The Uranus team hopes to permanently link the chemistry and dynamics of the upper atmosphere, detectable with Webb, to the deeper atmosphere that we have been studying with other institutions for many decades.”
Other predicted science targets in the solar system include the rings of Saturn, the atmosphere of the soupy moon Titan, sightings of several icy objects in the Kuiper Belt, and the sporadic and suspected plumes emerging from the icy moon Europa in images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Hammel said.
Europa is a target for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission and it’s likely that Webb’s observations will help this future spacecraft in its work. “We plan to take high-resolution images of Europa to study its surface and look for plume activity and active geologic processes,” Hammel said. “If we locate a plume, we will use Webb spectroscopy to analyze the composition of the plume.”
Webb is expected to complete science commissioning around June before entering an early science period. Hammel noted that about 7% of Webb’s first year of observations will be spent on the solar system.