NASA's James Webb Telescope points to Mars for the first time

NASA’s James Webb Telescope points to Mars for the first time

The james webb space telescope It’s not just about gazing at the most distant galaxies, flamboyantly colored nebulae, or scanning distant exoplanets for signs of life. The new Large Space Telescope can also slew its large mirror to targets closer to home, to targets like March.

On September 5, the James Webb Space Telescope made its first observations of the Red Planet, and those images and spectra have now been shared with the public for the first time. Webb is a joint project between the JARESA (European Space Agency) and Canadian Space Agency, as well as NASA and ESA announced the new images captured by Webb of Mars on social media on Monday.

Webb used his near-infrared camera, or NIRcam, to take images of Huygens Crater and Hellas Basin, the latter being the largest impact crater on Mars.

The telescope also used its infrared spectrometer to take a spectrum of Mars, a measurement of which wavelengths of light are absorbed as they pass through the planet’s atmosphere. Since scientists know which molecules and elements absorb infrared light at what wavelength, this allows them to decipher the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere, including carbon monoxide and dioxide and vapor. water.

“These early images of Mars already show distinct surface features and effects of the Martian atmosphere, and the spectra clearly show some of the key species we expected,” he said. The Independent Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist involved with Webb since the early 2000s, in an email. “By looking more closely, we hope to discover less abundant ‘trailer’ species, and perhaps even understand the mystery of Mars methane (why some observers see it and others don’t).”

The Mars observations are the fulfillment of a long-held scientific dream that Dr. Hammel had, having first envisioned the work 20 years ago.

“Mars was included in my initial proposal to NASA to become an interdisciplinary scientist on what was then called the ‘Next Generation Space Telescope’. I wrote this proposal in 2002 and was selected by NASA in 2003 to be part of the formal science working group for the new telescope,” said Dr Hammel. “It has been a long and strange journey over the past 20 years, but it is incredibly rewarding to see my original vision come together. achieve, including these Mars sightings!”

However, observations were not as easy to obtain as simply pointing the James Webb Telescope at Mars. Extremely sensitive to infrared light and designed to capture the faintest of galaxies at the edge of the universe, Webb had to be sharpened to even attempt to study something as close and relatively bright as Mars.

“Dr. Geronimo Villanueva was the chief of Mars observations,” Dr. Hammel said. “He devised a program that relied on extremely short exposures, specialized observing modes, and careful selection of wavelengths where Mars is not as bright. Still, some aspects of the detectors were overwhelmed by the brightness of Mars.”

Left: NIRCam image showing reflected sunlight at 2.1 microns (F212 filter), revealing surface features such as craters and layers of dust. Right: Simultaneous NIRCam image showing emitted light of approximately 4.3 microns (F430M filter) revealing temperature differences with latitude and time of day, as well as darkening of the Hellas Basin caused by atmospheric effects


The research team learned a lot from these early Webb observations of Mars, he added, and it will be in Webb’s continued study of the Red Planet that his potential will truly be realized. Its infrared sensors will allow scientists to monitor Mars even during dust storms and over long periods of time to better understand how the Martian atmosphere as a whole works.

And Mars isn’t the only local target for Webb, according to Dr. Hammel, who has prepared an extensive solar system research program for his time as an interdisciplinary scientist at the Webb Telescope.

“We still have some interesting data to come, including infrared observations of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot; studies of comets and asteroids; measurements of distant Kuiper Belt objects like Pluto, Eris and Sedna, and much more,” he said. “Personally, what I’m most looking forward to are the images and spectra of the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. My desire to observe these planets was the reason I wanted to be part of the ‘next generation’ telescope missions for so many years.”

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