NASA’s Webb Telescope takes aim at Mars for the first time

NASA's Webb Telescope takes aim at Mars for the first time

The James Webb Space Telescope isn’t just for looking at the most distant galaxies, brightly colored nebulae, or scanning distant exoplanets for signs of life. The big new space telescope can also turn its big mirror on targets closer to home. Targets like Mars.

On September 5, Webb made its first observations of the Red Planet, and these images and spectra have been shared with the public for the first time. Webb is a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, and NASA and ESA announced Webb’s new views of Mars on social media on Monday.

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

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

“These early images of Mars already show distinct surface features and effects of the Martian atmosphere, and the spectra clearly show some of the major species we expected,” said Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist involved with Webb since the early 2000s. . The Independent in an email. “With a closer look, we hope to uncover less abundant ‘trace’ species, and perhaps even unravel the mystery of Mars’ methane (why some observers see it and others don’t).”

The Mars observations are the fulfillment of a long-standing scientific dream of Dr. Hammel, who first envisioned this work 20 years ago.

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

However, the observations weren’t as easy as simply pointing Webb at Mars. Exquisitely sensitive to infrared light and designed to pick up the faintest galaxies at the edge of the universe, Webb had to adjust to even try to study something as close and relatively bright as Mars.

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

Left: NIRCam image showing reflected 2.1 micron sunlight (F212 filter), revealing surface features such as craters and dust layers. Right: Simultaneous NIRCam image showing ~4.3 micron emitted light (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 where it will really shine. Its infrared sensors will allow scientists to monitor Mars even during dust storms and for long periods of time to better understand how the Martian atmosphere works as a whole.

And Mars is not the only local target for Webb, according to Dr. Hammel, who has prepared a large program of Solar System research for the time at the Webb telescope that is guaranteed to be an interdisciplinary scientist.

“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 more,” he said. “What I’m personally most excited about 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 so many years ago.”

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