Webb Turns its Infrared Gaze on Mars

Graphic of Webb’s 2 NIRCam instrument images of Mars, taken on Sept. 5, 2022. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Mars JWST/GTO team

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the most complex and sophisticated observatory ever deployed. Using its advanced suite of infrared instruments, coronographs, and spectrometers – contributed by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – this observatory will spend the next ten to twenty years building on the achievements of its predecessor, the venerable Hubble. This includes exoplanet characterization, star and planet formation, and the formation and evolution of the earliest galaxies in the Universe.

However, one of the main objectives of the JWST is to study the planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and other celestial bodies here in the Solar System. This includes Mars, the first Solar planet to get the James Webb treatment! The images Webb took (recently released by the ESA) provide a unique perspective on Mars, showing what the planet looks like in infrared wavelengths. The data yielded by these images could provide new insight into Mars’ atmosphere and environment, complimenting decades of observations by orbiters, landers, rovers, and other telescopes.

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The Youngest Exoplanet Ever Seen?

Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), S. Dagnello (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

According to the most widely-accepted theory by astronomers, planetary systems begin as massive clouds of gas and dust (aka. a nebula) that experience gravitational collapse at the center to form new stars. The remaining matter in the system forms a “circumplanetary disk” around the star, which gradually accretes to form young planets. Studying disks in the earliest stages of planetary formation could help answer some hard questions about how the Solar System formed over 4.5 billion years ago.

Studying these disks requires observatories capable of capturing light in the far-infrared part of the spectrum – precisely what the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) was built for. While studying a young star (AS 209) located about 395 light-years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus, a team of scientists observed a circumplanetary disk that appeared to have a Jupiter-mass planet embedded in it. This could constitute the youngest exoplanet ever detected, and its continued study could provide a treasure-trove of data for astronomers.

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Now, We can Finally Compare Webb to Other Infrared Observatories

The evolution of infrared astronomy, from Spitzer to WISE to JWST. Image credit: Andras Gaspar.

The images released by the James Webb Space Telescope team last week aren’t officially ‘first light’ images from the new telescope, but in a way, it feels like they are. These stunning views provide the initial indications of just how powerful JWST will be, and just how much infrared astronomy is about to improve.

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Webb Has Almost Reached its Final, Coldest Temperature

Image: James Webb Space Telescope
NASA's James Webb Telescope, shown in this artist's conception, will provide more information about previously detected exoplanets. Beyond 2020, many more next-generation space telescopes are expected to build on what it discovers. Credit: NASA

 

Launched on December 25, 2021 from ESA’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reached its final orbit at the L2 Lagrange point on January 24, 2022. It has since performed several operations to get it ready for its observing mission which should begin in about a month.

As part of getting it ready for its mission, NASA has been cooling off its instruments, such as the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), to operating temperatures. Now that they have reached that point, all that’s left to cool down are the mirrors.

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NASA's Upcoming SPHEREx Mission Will map the Entire Universe in Infrared Every 6 Months

Illustration of the SPHEREx satellite. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The universe is cold and dark. And yet, within the dark, there is a faint glow of warmth. Across the sky, there are objects that emit infrared light, similar to the light that warms your hands near a campfire. By observing this light, astronomers can see the cosmos in a way that looks very different from that seen by our eyes.

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James Webb Unfolds Sunshield

The sunshield test unit on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is unfurled for the first time. Credit: NASA

It’s almost time.

Soon the James Webb Space Telescope will be on its way to the Sun/Earth L2 Lagrange point and will begin its at least 5-year science mission. Really, it’s going to happen.

Despite several delays since the program began in 1996 and a budget that has exceeded the original by several billion dollars, the launch of the JWST seems close at hand. That is if you consider almost a year away (the new planned launch date is October 31, 2021) to be close.

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NASA Announces the Discovery of Water in the Sunlit Parts of the Moon

Credit: NASA

For decades, astronomers have speculated that there may be water on the Moon. In recent years, this speculation was confirmed one orbiting satellite after another detected water ice around the Moon’s southern polar region. Within this part of the lunar surface, known as the South-Pole Aitken Basin, water ice is able to persist because of the many permanently-shadowed craters that are located there.

But until now, scientists were operating under the assumption that lunar water was only to be found in permanently shadowed craters. But thanks to NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), water has been observed on the sunlit side of the Moon for the first time. This discovery indicates that water may be distributed all across the lunar surface, and not limited to the dark corners.

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We’re Made of Starstuff. Especially From Extremely Massive Stars

An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005
An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005

A new study shows how massive young stars create the kind of organic molecules that are necessary for life.

A team of researchers used an airborne observatory to examine the inner regions around two massive young stars. Along with water, they found things like ammonia and methane. These molecules are swirling around in a disk of material that surrounds the young stars.

That material is the same stuff that planets form from, and the study presents some new insights into how the stuff of life becomes incorporated into planets.

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This is the Final Picture NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope

This view shows the California Nebula imaged in visible light. The inset shows a section of the nebula imaged by NASA's recently retired Spitzer Space Telescope, which studied the universe in infrared light. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Palomar Digitized Sky Survey

On Jan. 30th, 2020, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was retired after sixteen years of faithful service. As one of the four NASA Great Observatories – alongside Hubble, Chandra, and Compton space telescopes – Spitzer was dedicated to studying the Universe in infrared light. In so doing, it provided new insights into our Universe and enabled the study of objects and phenomena that would otherwise be impossible.

For instance, Spitzer was the first telescope to see light from an exoplanet and made important discoveries about comets, stars, and distant galaxies. It is therefore fitting that mission scientists decided to spend the last five days before the telescope was to be decommissioned capturing breathtaking images of the California Nebula, which were stitched into a mosaic and recently released to the public.

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How Did the TRAPPIST-1 Planets Get Their Water?

Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 2017, an international team of astronomers announced a momentous discovery. Based on years of observations, they found that the TRAPPIST-1 system (an M-type red dwarf located 40 light-years from Earth) contained no less than seven rocky planets! Equally exciting was the fact that three of these planets were found within the star’s Habitable Zone (HZ), and that the system itself has had 8 billion years to develop the chemistry for life.

At the same time, the fact that these planets orbit tightly around a red dwarf star has given rise to doubts that these three planets could maintain an atmosphere or liquid water for very long. According to new research by an international team of astronomers, it all comes down to the composition of the debris disk that the planets formed from and whether or not comets were around to distribute water afterward.

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