The James Webb Space Telescope has already dazzled us a lot, but the best is yet to come from the observatory, say mission team members.
“We have a lot of fantastic work coming out of the telescope,” said Stefanie Milam, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Project Assistant Scientist for Planetary Science, told the audience Tuesday, March 14 at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festivals in Austin, Texas.
“The scientific community is working really hard to analyze its own data and put it into peer-reviewed scientific publications, and it’s finally coming to fruition,” added Milam, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Astrochemistry Laboratory in Greenbelt. , Maryland. .
Related: 12 amazing discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope
A sensational, newly released JWST image of the WR 124, a huge exotic star that has already lost about 10 times the mass of the sun, is an example. The splendor of the image – taken last summer, just after JWST began science operations – illustrates how the telescope’s near and mid-infrared instruments, in combination with the superior optics of its 21.3 feet wide (6.5 meters), are able to show astronomers details they have never seen before.
In the case of WR 124, data from the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI) reveal the clumped structure of the dust surrounding WR 124, giving astronomers a better understanding of how dust is produced, the size and amount of dust particles present, and how dust from other “Wolf-Rayet” stars contributes to the overall dust content of the Milky Way, which is then recycled into the next generation of stars And planets.
“One area where we’re really getting a lot of new information is star birth,” Milam said at the SXSW event. “[We’re] understand star formation in a way we’ve never really had access to, with this whole new sensitivity and detail we’ve never had before. Not only do we see stars forming in our own galaxybut even in other galaxies …and now we get this detail that we previously only had for our own galactic understanding, now expanding into these other galaxies across the universe. It is truly an exciting time to be part of this field and to understand how our sun was born and how the solar system formedand that gives us a first real glimpse of it.”
By peering through dusty gas clouds that shroud star-forming regions that are opaque to visible wavelengths of light, JWST’s infrared vision is able to unravel these important details. But astronomers don’t just want to know how stars and planets form; they also want to know more about their evolution. This is where the observations of WR 124 come in – the central star that separates the nebula from its outer layers has a mass 30 times that of our sun and will eventually explode as a supernova. JWST also promises to do the same for planets.
The planets of our solar system are a starting point. “We are going to observe the solar system with the James Webb Space Telescope, and we have,” Milam said. Great pictures of March, Jupiter And Neptune have already been published by the JWST team, as well as observations of the DART bearing on the asteroid Dimorphos in September 2022.
“We’re going to observe whatever JWST can point to in our solar system, from Earth asteroids, comets, interstellar objectsall the planets and their satellites to the far reaches of our solar system, including our favorite minor planet, Pluto“, Milam said. “So there’s a lot more to come.”
Related: Solar System Planets, Order and Formation: A Guide
Beyond our solar system, there are more planets orbiting other stars. More … than 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered to date, ranging from massive giants larger than Jupiter to small worlds the size of Mars. However, the simplest exoplanets to study were the hot Jupiters — gas giants orbiting very close to their host star, at orbital radii of only a few million kilometers, because they produce the strongest signal.
JWST’s first exoplanet results also come from hot Jupiters – for example WASP-39b, a giant planet 700 light years away. JWST performs what is called transit spectroscopy, in which, as the planet transits (moves through) the face of its star, some of that starlight passes through the planet’s atmosphere. This light is absorbed by molecules in the planet’s atmosphere, and different molecules absorb light at different wavelengths. JWST’s spectrum of WASP-39b’s atmosphere – showing absorption lines, which allow astronomers to identify the molecules involved – is the most detailed examination of an exoplanet’s atmosphere ever.
“We have already seen that the JWST data is so good, so precise, that we are able to detect additional molecules in these atmospheres of distant exoplanets that we didn’t really expect to see,” said NASA’s Knicole Colon. Goddard, who also spoke at the SXSW event and is the JWST Project Associate Scientist for Exoplanet Science.
One of these molecules, sulfur dioxide, was created in the atmosphere of WASP-39b by photochemical reactions. In other words, by the action of sunlight on the atoms and molecules of the atmosphere.
“We literally didn’t think we could see [the results of these chemical reactions] with JWST,” Colon said. “Even though we knew it would be a great telescope, [the detection of sulfur dioxide was] much better than expected.”
This means that as the JWST studies and characterizes more and more exoplanets, exciting new discoveries will almost certainly be on the menu, discoveries that can teach astronomers about the formation and evolution of these planets. The mixture of gases in a planetary atmosphere, for example, can give an indication of how far away the planet formed.
Prior to the JWST, studies of exoplanetary atmospheres were limited to hot Jupiters, but the JWST is now beginning to target the atmospheres of smaller, Earth-sized planets, Also. Observations of the rocky worlds of TRAPPIST-1 system, for example, are in the works, but since these planets are much smaller than hot Jupiters and orbit a faint red dwarf star, it will take JWST longer to unravel the details of their atmospheres, if they have even atmospheres. However, in the next few years, some of the results from the TRAPPIST-1 planets and other similar worlds could transform the way we perceive our own planet. Earth in a cosmic context.
“We are still in the early days of deciphering all exoplanetary data,” Colon said. “What we want to do is compare these systems and say, ‘Do they have any similarities to Earth?’ I’m excited to see what we’re learning about these planets that are about the same size as ours, maybe they don’t always have the same temperature, maybe they don’t have surfaces with oceans liquids and all that, but we expect to learn more about their overall atmosphere. Is there water in the atmosphere? Is there carbon dioxide? Is there something familiar that we can connect to and help us understand better [whether] There is another life there?”
Related: The search for extraterrestrial life
Whatever those answers are, they are coming, and the next few years are going to be extremely exciting as JWST makes discoveries that could ultimately become historic milestones.
“The first two years of science with JWST are going to open the door to huge new questions and challenges that we have before us about whether or not there might be life on another planet,” said Milam.
Another mystery that captures the imagination just as much as the search for habitable exoplanets is that of the dark universe, more precisely black matterwhich is the mystery substance held responsible for the extra gravity seen in galaxies and galaxy clusters, and dark energythe unknown force that drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.
“We think that about 75% of the entire energy-matter content of the universe is this mysterious thing we call dark energy, and another 20% is this other mysterious substance called dark matter,” Milam said. “When astronomers don’t know what something is, we call it dark. It’s staggering… the hundreds of billions of galaxies and the trillions of stars and countless planets, all of this is only about 5% of the entire universe. And the rest, the remaining 95%, we don’t know what it is.”
Dark matter is located in invisible halos that surround galaxies, leading Milam to describe dark matter as the “scaffolding” in which galaxies sit.
“JWST is going to help us learn about dark matter specifically,” Milam said. “By studying how galaxies change over time, we are able to learn more about dark matter.”
JWST will not be able to find out what dark matter is; it depends on the particle physicists. But by observing the behavior of dark matter around galaxies, astronomers will be able to limit some of its properties, which could help physicists determine its nature. Researchers have been asking this question since Vera Rubin first identified the presence of dark matter in the 1970s, and the JWST could help astronomers take giant leaps forward in our understanding.
Meanwhile, new discoveries from JWST keep coming.
“I can say we have a lot of fantastic work coming out of the telescope,” says Milam. “We have a queue of press releases to release in the future so it’s a very exciting time. Every week we release something so stay tuned and I’m sure you’ll be amazed .”
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