Webb Detects Extremely Small Main Belt Asteroid
An asteroid roughly the size of Rome’s Colosseum — between 300 to 650 feet (100 to 200 meters) in length — has been detected by an international team of European astronomers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Their project used data from the calibration of the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), in which the team serendipitously detected an interloping asteroid. The object is likely the smallest observed to date by Webb and may be an example of an object measuring under 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) in length within the main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter. More observations are needed to better characterize this object’s nature and properties.
We — completely unexpectedly — detected a small asteroid in publicly available MIRI calibration observations,” explained Thomas Müller, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany. “The measurements are some of the first MIRI measurements targeting the ecliptic plane and our work suggests that many new objects will be detected with this instrument.”
These Webb observations, published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, were not designed to hunt for new asteroids — in fact, they were calibration images of the main belt asteroid (10920) 1998 BC1, which astronomers discovered in 1998. The observations were conducted to test the performance of some of MIRI’s filters, but the calibration team considered them to have failed for technical reasons due to the brightness of the target and an offset telescope pointing. Despite this, the data on asteroid 10920 were used by the team to establish and test a new technique to constrain an object’s orbit and to estimate its size. The validity of the method was demonstrated for asteroid 10920 using the MIRI observations combined with data from ground-based telescopes and ESA’s Gaia mission.
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