Failed Webb calibration leads to discovery of tiny asteroid

With any new technology, failures are inevitable – and this is also true for cutting-edge astronomical instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope. But failure can have a silver lining, as demonstrated recently when an unsuccessful attempt to calibrate a Webb instrument to a known asteroid resulted in a pleasant surprise: the discovery of a new, different asteroid just a few hundred feet away is in diameter.

An asteroid about the size of Rome’s Colosseum – between 300 and 650 feet long – has been spotted by a team of European astronomers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. They used data from the MIRI instrument calibration to accidentally spot an intruding asteroid. The object is likely the smallest observed by Webb and could be an example of an object less than 1 kilometer long within the main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter. ARTWORK: NASA, ESA, CSA, N. Bartmann (ESA/Webb), Martin Kornmesser (ESA), Serge Brunier (ESO), Nick Risinger (Photopic Sky Survey)

Researchers looked at data collected during the calibration of Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) when it was aimed at known asteroid 1998 BC1 – a procedure that failed due to technical problems. They hoped they could use this data to test some new techniques, but as they dug, they discovered something unexpected. There was a tiny asteroid about 100 to 200 meters (300 to 650 feet) long that happened to be passing through the instrument’s field of view at the same time.

“Our results show that even ‘failed’ Webb observations can be scientifically useful given the right mindset and a bit of luck,” the study’s lead author Thomas Mueller said in a statement. “Our discovery is in the main asteroid belt, but Webb’s incredible sensitivity has made it possible to see this roughly 100-meter-wide object more than 100 million kilometers away.”

The smaller targets like asteroids are, the harder they are to spot because they reflect so little light. So it’s exciting that Webb was able to spot this new object, which is believed to be the smallest asteroid Webb has observed to date.

The discovery needs to be confirmed before the tiny asteroid can be named, but it could help researchers understand more about how the solar system formed. Asteroids are remnants of planetary formation, and examining them can provide a glimpse into the past billions of years.

“This is a fantastic result that underscores MIRI’s abilities to accidentally discover a previously undetectable asteroid in the main belt,” said Webb Support Scientist Bryan Holler. “Repeats of these observations are currently being planned, and we fully expect new asteroid invaders in these images.”

The research results were published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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