(ORDO NEWS) — NASA’s Next Generation Space Observatory has successfully tracked a moving asteroid as the telescope nears 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 a possibly 20-year lifetime.
“As it enters service, we will test other objects moving at different speeds to make sure we can study objects moving around the solar system with it,” NASA wrote on May 19, adding that the observatory is “nearly ready” for beginning of scientific observations.
Webb’s ability to see nearby objects will allow it to observe everything from icy objects in the Kuiper belt to potentially habitable moons orbiting our solar system’s gas giant planets, the agency said.
Asteroid 6841 Tenzing, a main-belt asteroid named after Tenzing Norgai, was selected for observations. The Tibetan mountaineer was one of the first two famous people to summit Everest with Edmund Hillary. Coincidentally, Webb’s observations took place a few days before the 69th anniversary of their ascent to the summit on May 29, 1953.
Brian Holler of the Space Telescope Science Institute had a choice of about 40 possible asteroids to test the tracking of a moving target,” said Heidi Hummel, Webb Solar System Observation Interdisciplinary Scientist.
According to NASA officials, Webb is encountering some problems associated with tracking a moving target, such as having to transition from slightly colder to hotter targets, which can affect the fine alignment of mirrors and instruments.
However, Hammel believes the scientific data the telescope will bring to our outer solar system is worth the trouble, especially for planets like Uranus and Neptune, which have only been visited by one spacecraft so far. (Hammel participated in the imaging campaign during the 1989 flyby of Neptune by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft.)
“It was the lack of a new] mission to these very distant worlds that made me take part in the Webb project many decades ago,” Hammel said.
The Uranus team hopes to definitively link the chemistry and dynamics of the upper atmosphere detected by Webb to the deeper atmosphere that we have studied with other spacecraft over many decades.”
Other planned science targets in the solar system include the rings of Saturn, the atmosphere of Titan’s dirty moon, observations of several icy Kuiper Belt objects, and sporadic, suspected plumes emerging from the icy moon of Europa in Hubble Space Telescope footage, Hubble said.
Webb is expected to complete commissioning around June and then enter the early science period. Hummel noted that about 7% of Webb’s first year of observations will be devoted to the solar system.
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