The James Webb and Hubble Space Telescopes turned their cameras towards asteroid Dimorphos, just as DART was about to smash into it.
In a first, the two most powerful space telescopes ever built, the James Webb and Hubble, have observed the same celestial object, a spacecraft deliberately crashing into an asteroid, according to a statement. As Earth prepares to defend itself against a potentially life-threatening asteroid, the world’s telescopes turned their attention this week to the space rock Dimorphos.
Observers were ecstatic Monday night when NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) impactor flew into a target 11 million kilometers away. Following the spacecraft’s impact, ground-based telescopes captured images of a vast cloud of dust expanding from Dimorphos and its bigger brother Didymos.
In contrast to those earlier images, the James Webb and Hubble images “zoom in much closer,” according to Alan Fitzsimmons from Queen’s University Belfast. According to Fitzsimmons, Hubble and James Webb can see “within just a few kilometers of the asteroids,” showing how the material is flying out from DART’s explosive impact.
In addition to revealing the nature of the asteroid’s surface, observations from space telescopes will help determine the amount and speed of matter spewed from the body. The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) of James Webb captured the image of asteroid Dimorphos four hours after DART impacted it. In the photograph, we can see a plume of material streaming away from where the collision took place, according to James Webb, Hubble, and the European Space Agency.
As a result of the telescope operating primarily in the infrared spectrum, James Webb’s images are red. This enables the telescope to peer deeper into the universe than ever before. The Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 images are blue as they illustrate the impact on visible light.
As seen in Hubble images, 22 minutes, five hours, and eight hours after impact, DART impacted the asteroid leaving an expanding spray of matter. In order to begin preparing to defend ourselves against larger asteroids that could head our way in the future, DART’s success will be measured by how much it diverted the asteroid’s trajectory.
In contrast, it may take Earth-bound telescopes and radar days or even weeks to establish exactly where Dimorphos is now, as opposed to where the asteroid should have been. Researchers have revealed that measurements will likely begin next week using that data. Scientists will need to wait a bit until the massive amount of matter ejected from the asteroid clears up, so they can start taking measurements and observations.
Depending on how efficient DART was, astronomers will be able to make that measurement quickly. It will be easier to measure the asteroid the more it has been knocked off course. Since its launch in December and the release of its first images in July, James Webb has replaced Hubble as the most powerful space telescope. This is the first time both telescopes have observed the same event since astronomers lined up for the precious time to peer into the universe.
It is a wonderful demonstration of how you can get more science when you use more than one telescope at the same time, concluded Fitzsimmons.