Fantastic: NASA shows how James Webb Telescope sees the planet Uranus and follows an asteroid…

19/05/2022
Credit image: NASA - Uranus shown within the field of view for MIRI spectroscopy. Keck image and data of Uranus courtesy L. Sromovsky, Leigh Fletcher
Credit image: NASA - Uranus shown within the field of view for MIRI spectroscopy. Keck image and data of Uranus courtesy L. Sromovsky, Leigh Fletcher

Article by: Andacs Robert Eugen, on 19 May 2022, at 10:27 am Los Angeles time

Scientists show us how the James Webb Telescope would see the planet Uranus in its spectra, but also the possible data that it would return about the surface of a moon or planet.

At this moment, the telescope is in its last phase of commissioning, ie the arrangement, commissioning, and verification of the 4 scientific instruments with which it will make future observations. More about this here.

Astronomers and scientists are waiting for Webb to see distant galaxies, stars, and fascinating exoplanets. Data is also expected on the atmospheres of some exoplanets, such as what gases they contain and many others.

But NASA intends Webb to see even the planets, their moons, comets, and maybe even asteroids in our Solar System.

Recently, according to the space agency, James Webb Telescope completed the first planned tracking test in our Solar System, with astronomers confirming that the telescope was tracking an asteroid called 6481 Tenzing.

Other tests are expected in the coming weeks so that scientists will know if the last phase of commissioning is going well.

Let's listen to what scientists say. Heidi Hammel, Webb's interdisciplinary scientist for solar system observations tells us more about the mission that Webb will do in our Solar System:

"I am really excited about Webb's upcoming first year of science operations! I lead a team of equally excited astronomers eager to begin downloading data. Webb can detect the faint light of the earliest galaxies, but my team will be observing much closer to home. They will use Webb to unravel some of the mysteries that abound in our own solar system.

"One of the questions I get asked frequently is why we need a powerful telescope like Webb to study our nearby solar system. We planetary scientists use telescopes to complement our in situ missions (missions that we send to fly by, orbit, or land on objects). One example of this is how Hubble was used to find the post-Pluto target for the New Horizons mission, Arrokoth. We also use telescopes when we don't have in situ missions planned - like for the distant ice giants Uranus and Neptune or to make measurements of large populations of objects, such as hundreds of asteroids or Kuiper Belt Objects (small ice worlds beyond the orbits of Neptune, including Pluto), since we can only send missions to just a few of these.

"The Webb team has already used an asteroid within our solar system to run engineering tests of the 'moving target' (MT) capability. The engineering team tested this capability on a small asteroid in the Main Belt: 6481 Tenzing, named after Tenzing Norgay, the famous Tibetan mountain guide who was one of the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Bryan Holler, at the Space Telescope Science Institute, had a choice of about 40 possible asteroids to test the MT tracking, but, as he told our team: "Since the objects were all virtually identical otherwise, picking the one with a name linked to success seemed like a no-brainer." We like that sort of thing.

"My role with Webb as an 'Interdisciplinary Scientist' means that my program uses all of the capabilities of this forefront telescope! We need all of them to truly understand the solar system (and the universe!).

"Our solar system has far more mysteries than my team had time to solve. Our programs will observe objects across the solar system: We will image the giant planets and Saturn's rings; explore many Kuiper Belt Objects; analyze the atmosphere of Mars; execute detailed studies of Titan; and much more! There are also other teams planning observations; in its first year, 7% of Webb's time will be focused on objects within our solar system.

"One exciting and challenging program we plan to do is observe ocean worlds. There's evidence from the Hubble Space Telescope that Jupiter's moon Europa has sporadic plumes of water-rich material. We plan to take high-resolution imagery of Europa to study its surface and search for plume activity and active geologic processes. If we locate a plume, we will use Webb's spectroscopy to analyze the plume's composition.

Credit image: NASA-GSFC/SVS, Hubble Space Telescope, Stefanie Milam, Geronimo Villanueva - Simulated spectroscopy results from the plumes of Europa. This is an example of the data the Webb telescope could return that could identify the composition of subsurface ocean of this moon
Credit image: NASA-GSFC/SVS, Hubble Space Telescope, Stefanie Milam, Geronimo Villanueva - Simulated spectroscopy results from the plumes of Europa. This is an example of the data the Webb telescope could return that could identify the composition of subsurface ocean of this moon

"I have a soft spot in my heart for Uranus and Neptune. Indeed, it was the lack of a mission to these very distant worlds that got me involved in Webb so many decades ago. The Uranus team hopes to definitively link the chemistry and dynamics of the upper atmosphere (detectable with Webb) to the deeper atmosphere that we have been studying with other facilities over many decades. I've spent the past 30 years using the biggest and best telescopes humanity has ever built to study these ice giants, and we will now add Webb to that list.

"We have been planning for Webb observations for over twenty years, and that has gone into overdrive now that we are launched, deployed, and focused! I'll note that nearly all of my team's solar system data will be freely available to the broad planetary science community immediately. I made that choice to enable more science discoveries with Webb in future proposals.

"I am gratified to have been able to work with the team for all this time, and I especially want to give a shout out to the thousands of people who collectively have enabled this amazing facility for the astrophysics and planetary communities. Thank you! Ad astra!"

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