‘Surprise’ asteroid photo-bombs NASA scientists


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An asteroid has given astronomers quite a surprise after seeming to photo-bomb NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

The telescope’s official Twitter account described it as a “teeny, tiny photo-bomb”, but the previously unknown asteroid is thought to be “roughly the size of Rome’s Colosseum [and] between … 100 to 200 metres in length”.

Despite its apparently generous proportions, it is thought to be the smallest object detected by the telescope. It was spotted by an international team of European astronomers within the main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter.

“We – completely unexpectedly – detected a small asteroid in publicly available MIRI calibration observations,” said 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.”

The smaller asteroid was discovered by chance, when the astronomers were testing other observations from the doughnut-shaped field that is home to most of the asteroids in the solar system.

“Our detection lies in the main asteroid belt, but Webb’s incredible sensitivity made it possible to see this roughly 100-metre object at a distance of more than 100 million kilometres,” Dr Müller said.

The James Webb telescope has been in operation since last July. It is the most powerful space telescope built and has unleashed a raft of unprecedented data as well as stunning images.

Astronomers expect more surprises in future images from the $14 billion telescope.

“This is a fantastic result which highlights the capabilities of MIRI to serendipitously detect a previously undetectable size of asteroid in the main belt,” said Bryan Holler, Webb support scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

“Repeats of these observations are in the process of being scheduled, and we are fully expecting new asteroid interlopers in those images.”

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