As the James Webb Space Telescope - the world’s largest, most powerful, and most complex space science telescope ever built - moves through the final phases of commissioning its science instruments, Nasa has also begun working on technical operations of the observatory. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international programme led by Nasa with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
While the telescope moves through space, it will constantly find distant stars and galaxies and point at them with extreme precision to acquire images and spectra. However, Nasa also plans to observe planets and their satellites, asteroids, and comets in our solar system, which move across the background stars of our galaxy. Webb needs to be able to lock on to these objects and track them with sufficient precision to obtain images and spectra. The Webb team recently completed the first test to track a moving object, as explained in a latest Nasa blog. The test verified that Webb could conduct moving target science. More tests are to follow to verify researchers can study objects with Webb that move throughout the solar system.
Heidi Hammel, Webb interdisciplinary scientist for solar system observations, spoke to the Nasa blog about the excitement surrounding Webb’s upcoming first year of science operations. She is leading a team of equally excited astronomers eager to begin downloading data. Webb can detect the faint light of the earliest galaxies, but Hammel’s team will be observing much closer to home. They will use Webb to unravel some of the mysteries that abound in our own solar system.
“Our solar system has far more mysteries than my team had time to solve. Our programmes will observe objects across the solar system: We will image the giant planets and Saturn’s rings; explore many Kuiper Belt Objects; analyse the atmosphere of Mars; execute detailed studies of Titan; and much more. There are also other teams planning observations; in its first year, 7% of Webb’s time will be focused on objects within our solar system.
“One exciting and challenging programme we plan to do is observe ocean worlds. There’s evidence from the Hubble Space Telescope that Jupiter’s moon Europa has sporadic plumes of water-rich material. We plan to take high-resolution imagery of Europa to study its surface and search for plume activity and active geologic processes. If we locate a plume, we will use Webb’s spectroscopy to analyse the plume’s composition,” says Hammel who has spent the past 30 years using the biggest and best telescopes humanity has ever built to study the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. “We will now add Webb to that list,” she added.
The veteran Nasa scientist has assured that nearly all of her team’s solar system data will be freely available to the broad planetary science community immediately. “I made that choice to enable more science discoveries with Webb in future proposals,” she added.