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

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Today, we asked Heidi Hammel, Webb interdisciplinary scientist for solar system observations, to tell us about her plans for studying Earth’s nearest neighbors:

“I am really excited about Webb’s upcoming first year of science operations! I lead a team of equally excited astronomers eager to begin downloading data. Webb can detect the faint light of the earliest galaxies, but my 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.

“One of the questions I get asked frequently is why we need a powerful telescope like Webb to study our nearby solar system. We planetary scientists use telescopes to complement our in situ missions (missions that we send to fly by, orbit, or land on objects). One example of this is how Hubble was used to find the post-Uranus Webb MIRI Spectroscopy

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

“My role with Webb as an ‘Interdisciplinary Scientist’ means that my program uses all of the capabilities of this forefront telescope! We need all of them to truly understand the solar system (and the universe!).

“Our solar system has far more mysteries than my team had time to solve. Our programs will observe objects across the solar system: We will image the giant planets and Saturn’s rings; explore many Kuiper Belt Objects; analyze the atmosphere of Europa Webb NURSpec Spectroscopy

Simulated spectroscopy results from the plumes of Europa. This is an example of the data the Webb telescope could return that could identify the composition of subsurface ocean of this moon. Credit: NASA-GSFC/SVS, Hubble Space Telescope, Stefanie Milam, Geronimo Villanueva

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