The James Webb Space Telescope has already dazzled us a lot, but the best is yet to come from the observatory, mission team members say.
“We have a lot of great work coming out of the telescope,” said Stefanie Milam, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) deputy project 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 hard at work analyzing their own data and putting it into peer-reviewed scientific publications, and that’s finally coming to fruition,” added Milam, of the Astrochemistry Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Green Belt, Maryland. .
Related: 12 Amazing James Webb Space Telescope Discoveries
A sensational, newly released JWST image of 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 scientific operations — is illustrative of how the telescope’s near- and mid-infrared instruments, combined with the superior optics of its 21.3-foot-wide (6.5 meter) mirror, astronomers can show details they have never seen before.
In the case of WR 124, the data from the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) reveal the clumpy structure of the dust surrounding WR 124, helping astronomers better understand how the dust is produced, its size and amount of dust particles present, and how dust from other such “Wolf-Rayet” stars contributes to the total 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 the birth of stars,” Milam said at the SXSW event. “[We’re] understanding star formation in a way we’ve never really had access to, with this whole new sensitivity and detail we’ve never had before. We don’t just see star formation our own galaxybut also in others galaxies … and we are now getting this detail that we used to only have for our own galactic understanding, now expanding to these other galaxies around the world universe. It’s just a really exciting time to be part of that field and understand how our sun was born and how the solar system was formedand this gives us that first real glimpse of it.”
By peering through the clouds of dusty gas that envelop star-forming regions that are opaque at visible wavelengths of light, JWST’s infrared vision can tease out these important details. But astronomers don’t just want to learn how stars and planets form; they also want to learn more about how they evolve. That’s where the WR 124 observations come in – the central star ejecting the nebula from its outer layers has a mass 30 times that of our sun and will eventually explode like a supernova. JWST also promises to do the same for planets.
The planets of our solar system are a starting point. “We will observe the solar system with the James Webb Space Telescope, and we did,” Milam said. Superb images of Mars, Jupiter And Neptune have already been released by the JWST team, as well as observations of the DART impact on the asteroid Dimorphos in September 2022.
“We’re going to be observing everything in our solar system that JWST can point to, from near Earth asteroids, Come eat, interstellar objectsall the planets and their satellites to the furthest reaches of our solar system, including our favorite minor planet, Pluto‘ said Milam. “So there’s a lot more to come.”
Related: Planets in the Solar System, Order and Formation: A Guide
Outside our solar system, more planets orbit other stars. More than 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered to date, ranging in size from massive giants larger than Jupiter to small worlds the size of Mars. However, the easiest exoplanets to study have been the hot Jupiters – gas giants orbiting very close to their host star, with an orbital radius of only a few million miles – because they produce the strongest signal.
For example, JWST’s earliest exoplanet results also come from hot Jupiters WASP-39b, a giant planet 700 light-years away. JWST performs what’s called transit spectroscopy, where some of that starlight passes through the planet’s atmosphere as the planet moves (moves) through the face of its star. 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 the absorption lines, which help astronomers identify the molecules involved – is the most detailed look at an exoplanet’s atmosphere yet.
“We’ve already seen JWST data so good, so accurate that we’re able to detect additional molecules in these distant exoplanet atmospheres that we never really expected to see,” said NASA Goddard’s Knicole Colon, who also spoke. at the SXSW event and who is JWST’s deputy project scientist for exoplanet science.
One of these molecules, sulfur dioxide, was created in WASP-39b’s atmosphere through photochemical reactions. In other words, through the action of sunlight on atoms and molecules in the atmosphere.
“We literally thought we wouldn’t be able to see it [the results of these chemical reactions] with JWST,” said Colon. “Even though we knew it would be a great telescope, [the detection of sulfur dioxide was] just so much better than expected.”
This means that as JWST studies and characterizes more and more exoplanets, new and exciting discoveries will almost certainly be on the menu, discoveries that can teach astronomers about the formation and evolution of those planets. For example, the mixture of gases in a planetary atmosphere can give an indication of how far the planet is from its star.
Prior to JWST, studies of exoplanetary atmospheres were limited to hot Jupiters, but JWST is now beginning to focus on the atmospheres of smaller, Earth-sized planets, at. Observations of the rocky worlds of the TRAPPIST-1 system, for example, are underway, but because these planets are much smaller than hot Jupiters and orbit a faint red dwarf star, it will take longer for JWST to pluck the details from their atmospheres, if they have atmospheres at all. However, in the coming years, some results from the TRAPPIST-1 planets and other similar worlds could change the way we see our own planet Soil in a cosmic context.
“We’re still in the early days of deciphering all exoplanet data,” Colon said. “What we do want to do is compare those systems and say, ‘Do they have similarities to Earth?’ I’m excited to see what we learn about those planets that are about the same size as ours they may not always be the same temperature they may not have surfaces with liquid oceans and stuff but we still expect to learn about their overall atmosphere Is there water in the atmosphere Is there carbon dioxide Is there something familiar to us that we can relate to and identify with to understand it better? [whether] is there any other life out there?”
Related: The search for extraterrestrial life
Whatever those answers are, they are coming, and the next few years will be extremely exciting as JWST makes discoveries that may eventually become historic milestones.
“The first few years of science with JWST will open the door to tremendous new questions and challenges ahead of us about whether there could be life on another planet,” Milam said.
Another mystery as imaginative as the search for habitable exoplanets is that of the dark universe, specifically dark matterthe mysterious substance held responsible for the extra gravity observed in galaxies and galaxy clusters, and dark energythe unknown force driving the acceleration in the expansion of the universe.
“We think about 75% of the total energy-matter content of the universe is this mysterious thing we call dark energy, and another 20% is this other mysterious stuff called dark matter,” Milam said. ‘If astronomers don’t know what something is, we label it dark. It’s amazing… the hundreds of billions of galaxies and the trillions of stars and countless planets, all of which only make up about 5% of the entire universe. And the rest, the other 95%, we don’t know what it is.”
Dark matter resides 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 can learn more about dark matter.”
JWST won’t be able to discover what dark matter is; that’s up to the particle physicists. But by looking at how dark matter behaves around galaxies, astronomers can narrow down some of its properties, which could help physicists pinpoint its nature. Researchers have been asking this question since Vera Rubin first identified the presence of dark matter in the 1970s, and JWST could help astronomers make some giant leaps forward in our understanding.
Meanwhile, JWST’s new discoveries just keep coming.
“I can say we have a lot of great work coming out of the telescope,” says Milam. “We have a line of press releases for future release coming out, so it’s a very exciting time. We release something every week, so stay tuned and I’m sure you’ll be amazed.”
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