Using a camera called a Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) that was designed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has finally managed to identify the dust trail left by asteroid 3200 Phaeton, which astronomers have been trying to detect for decades, phys.org reports.
While discussing the results of this venture during a NASA press conference on 11 December, NRL's Space Science Division scientist Karl Battams explained that the dust trail is best seen near the Sun, which makes WISPR an extremely useful tool for observing it.
"This is why NRL's heliospheric imagers are so ground-breaking", Battams said. "They allow you to see near-Sun outflows massively fainter than the Sun itself, which would otherwise blind our cameras. And in this case, you can also see solar system objects extremely close to the Sun, which most telescopes cannot do."
The data supplied by the probe allowed researchers to establish that the asteroid dust trail is over 14 million miles long and weighs about billion tons, leaving scientists to ponder on its origins.
"Something catastrophic happened to Phaethon a couple of thousand years ago and created the Geminid Meteor shower", Battams said. "There's no way the asteroid is anywhere near active enough when it is near the Sun to produce the mass of dust we are seeing, so we are confident that WISPR is seeing part of the Geminid meteor stream."
The Parker Solar Probe is expected to continue orbiting the Sun for the next five years, the media outlet adds.