The Webb Space Telescope is almost ready to explore the solar system

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is NASA’s next major observatory; in line with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. JWST combines the qualities of two of its predecessors, observing in infrared light, like Spitzer, with fine resolution, like Hubble. Credit: NASA, SkyWorks Digital, Northrop Grumman, STScI

As " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">Nasait is James Webb Space Telescope is going through the final stages of commissioning its scientific instruments, the JWST team has also begun work on the technical operations of the observatory. As the telescope travels through space, it will constantly find distant stars and galaxies and point to them with incredible precision to acquire images and spectra. However, it is also expected to observe planets and their satellites, asteroids and comets in our solar system, which move through the background stars of our galaxy. Webb needs to be able to lock onto these objects and track them accurately enough to get images and spectra.

Recently, the Webb team performed the first test to track a moving object. The test confirmed that Webb could conduct research on moving targets! As we progress with the commissioning, we will test other objects moving at different speeds to verify that we can study with Webb moving objects throughout the solar system.

Today we asked Heidi Hammel, Webb Interdisciplinary Scientist for Solar System Observations, to tell us about her plans to study Earth’s nearest neighbors:

“I’m really excited about Webb’s first year of science operations! I lead a team of astronomers who are equally excited and eager to start downloading data. Webb can detect the faint light of early galaxies, but my team will observe 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 solar system up close. We planetary scientists use telescopes to complement our on the spot missions (missions we send to fly, orbit or land on objects). An example of this is how Hubble was used to find the post-Pluto New Horizons mission target, Arrokoth. We also use telescopes when we don’t have on the spot planned missions – such as 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 orbits of Neptuneincluding Pluto), because we can only send missions to a few of them.

“The Webb team has previously used an asteroid in our solar system to perform engineering tests of the ‘moving target’ (MT) capability. The engineering team tested this capability on a small asteroid in the belt main: 6481 Tenzing, named after Tenzing Norgay, the famous Tibetan mountain guide who was one of the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Bryan Holler of the Space Telescope Science Institute had about 40 possible asteroids to choose from to test MT tracking, but, as he told our team, “Since the objects were all virtually identical otherwise picking the one with a name tied to success seemed like a no-brainer. We love that kind of stuff.

MIRI Uranus Webb Spectroscopy

Uranus is shown in the MIRI spectroscopy field of view. Credit: Keck image and Uranus data courtesy of L. Sromovsky, Leigh Fletcher

“My role at Webb as an ‘interdisciplinary scientist’ means that my program uses everything capabilities of this state-of-the-art telescope! We need everyone to really understand the solar system (and the universe!).

“Our solar system has many more mysteries than my team has had time to solve. Our programs will observe objects across the solar system: We will image giant planets and Saturn’s rings; explore many belt objects of Kuiper; analyze the atmosphere of " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">March; perform detailed studies of Titan; and much more! There are also other teams that plan observations; in his first year, 7% of Webb’s time will be spent on objects in our solar system.

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

Europa Webb NURspec Spectroscopy

Results of simulated spectroscopy of plumes from Europe. This is an example of the data the Webb Telescope could return that could identify the composition of this moon’s subterranean ocean. Credit: NASA-GSFC/SVS, Hubble Space Telescope, Stefanie Milam, Geronimo Villanueva

“I have a weakness in my heart for " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">Uranus and Neptune. Indeed, it was the absence of a mission to those very distant worlds that led me to become involved with 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 for many decades. I’ve spent the last 30 years using the biggest and best telescopes mankind has ever built to study these icy giants, and now we’ll add Webb to that list.

“We have been planning Webb observations for over twenty years, and it has accelerated now that we are launched, deployed and focused! I made this choice to enable more scientific discoveries with Webb in future proposals.

“I am delighted to have been able to work with the team for all this time, and I especially want to thank the thousands of people who have collectively made this incredible facility possible for the astrophysical and planetary communities. Thanks! Ad Astra!”

Heidi Hammel, Vice President for Science, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA)

Written by:

  • Stefanie Milam, Webb Project Assistant Scientist for Planetary Science, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  • Jonathan Gardner, Webb Project Deputy Principal Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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