While astronomers and engineers were trying to calibrate one of the James Webb Space Telescope’s instruments last summer, they serendipitously found a previously unknown small 100–200-meter (300-600 ft) asteroid in the main asteroid belt. Originally, the astronomers deemed the calibrations as a failed attempt because of technical glitches. But they noticed the asteroid while going through their data from the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), and ended up finding what is likely the smallest object observed to date by JWST. It is also one of the smallest objects ever detected in our Solar System’s main belt of asteroids.
“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, in a press release. “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.”
In October 2021, NASA launched its ambitious Lucy mission. Its targets are asteroids, two in the main belt and eight Jupiter trojans, which orbit the Sun in the same path as Jupiter. The mission is named after early hominin fossils (Australopithecus afarensis,) and the name pays homage to the idea that asteroids are fossils from the Solar System’s early days of planet formation.
Visiting ten asteroids in one mission is the definition of ambitious, and now NASA is adding an eleventh.