NASA’s Webb Telescope targets Mars for the first time

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

On September 5, Webb made his 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 NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, and both NASA and ESA announced the new Webb views 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 break down the chemical makeup 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,” said Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist involved with Webb from the start. of the 2000s. The Independent in an email. “With a closer look, we hope to be able to tease out less abundant ‘trace’ 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 longtime scientific dream for Dr. Hammel, who first dreamed up the 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 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’s been a long, strange journey over the past 20 years, but it’s been incredibly rewarding to see my original vision come to fruition, including these Mars sightings!”

However, the observations weren’t as simple as simply pointing Webb at Mars. Extremely sensitive to infrared light and designed to pick up the faintest of galaxies at the edge of the universe, Webb had to be adjusted to even attempt to study something as close and relatively bright as Mars.

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

Left: NIRCam image showing reflected sunlight from 2.1 microns (F212 filter), revealing surface features such as craters and layers of dust. Right: Simultaneous NIRCam image showing about 4.3 micron emitted light (F430M filter) that reveals 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, she 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 over long periods of time to better understand how the Martian atmosphere as a whole works.

And Mars is not the only local target for Webb, according to Dr. Hammel, who has prepared an extensive research program on the solar system for the moment on the Webb telescope, she is guaranteed as an interdisciplinary scientist.

“We still have exciting 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,” she said. “Personally, what I’m most looking forward to are the images and spectra of the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. My desire for observations of these planets was the reason I wanted to be part of the “next generation” telescope missions so many years ago.

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