“The mighty Mars”: this is how NASA highlighted the observations of the James Webb telescope on the red planet

The James Webb Space Telescope placed its lens on Mars (NASA / Handout via Reuters)

After revealing unprecedented images of galaxies, star clusters and even exoplanets located millions of light years away, the powerful space telescope James Webb (JWST) focused its 18-panel lens on our closest cosmic neighbor, the planet Marte.

pictures and measurements were held on September 5, 2022 from JWST’s position 1.6 million kilometers from Mars. The images of the observable disk of the red planet, the side lit by the sun and facing the telescope, were captured by the Webb’s near infrared camera (NIRCam) and could provide planetary scientists with a unique view of the neighbor approaching Earth, delivering data that can be used in conjunction with observations made by rovers like NASA’s Perseverance and spacecraft in Mars orbit.

Because Marte it is relatively close and very bright, not the easiest object for the JWST to visualize, designed to see incredibly distant and faint objects. “Mars is so bright, the challenge is how to see it,” Giuliano Liuzzi, principal investigator and scientist at NASA’s Planetary Systems Laboratory at Goddard Space Flight Center, said at an EPSC news conference to mark the launch of Mars. the images.

Webb's first images of Mars, captured by its NIRCam instrument on September 5, 2022 ( NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Mars JWST/GTO team)
Webb’s first images of Mars, captured by its NIRCam instrument on September 5, 2022 ( NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Mars JWST/GTO team)

To prevent the bright infrared light from Mars from blinding the JWST instruments, scientists used very short exposures to observe the Red Planet. This meant measuring only part of the light reaching JWST’s detectors, and then applying special methods to analyze the collected data.

“We can see this incredible resolution, we have the diffraction limit of a space telescope in the infrared, which is fantastic. We can see the whole planetLiuzzi continued. The observatory, because it was built to detect the extremely faint light from the most distant galaxies in the universe. In fact, Webb’s instruments are so sensitive that, without special observing techniques, the bright infrared light from Mars is blinding. and causes a phenomenon known as “detector saturation”. Astronomers adjusted for the extreme brightness of Mars by measuring only part of the light reaching the detectors, using very short exposures, and applying special data analysis techniques.

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JWST was able to capture images and spectra with the spatial resolution that astronomers need to study short-term phenomena such as Martian weather patterns, dust storms, and even changes caused by the planet’s seasons.

Also, the Webb telescope can capture events that occur at different times throughout the Martian day, during the day, at sunset, and at night, in a single observation. The first images of Mars taken by JWST show an area in the planet’s eastern hemisphere in two different wavelengths of light. The short-wavelength image is dominated by reflected sunlight and shows details of the Martian surface that resemble features seen in visible light. These features include Huygens crateran impact crater nearly 280 miles wide (450 kilometers) and dark volcanic rock en Syrtis Major Planum. This image shows a NASA surface reference map and the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on the left, with the two fields of view from the Webb NIRCam instrument superimposed. Near-infrared images of Webb are shown to the right.

The James Webb Telescope continues to amaze scientists.  (photo: ComputerHoy.com)
The James Webb Telescope continues to amaze scientists. (photo: ComputerHoy.com)

The Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam camera captured light emitted by Mars in longer infrared wavelengths as it loses heat. The brightness of this light is related to the temperature of Mars and its atmosphere, with the brightest and warmest area located where the sun is almost over the planet. The brightness decreases towards the Martian polar regions that are less exposed to sunlight, and in the northern hemisphere of the planet that is currently in the middle of Martian winter. However, the amount of light reaching the JWST is not only related to the temperature of the planet. The images collected by the telescope can also give clues about the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the surface of Mars.

NIRCam’s shorter wavelength image (2.1 microns) is dominated by reflected sunlight and thus reveals surface details similar to those that appear in visible-light images. The rings of Huygens crater, the dark volcanic rock of Syrtis Major, and the glow in the Hellas Basin are evident in this image. The picture Longest wavelength NIRCam (4.3 microns) [abajo a la derecha] shows thermal emission: the light emitted by the planet as it loses heat. The brightness of the 4.3 micron light is related to the temperature of the surface and the atmosphere. The brightest region of the planet is where the Sun is almost up, because it is generally warmer. The brightness decreases towards the polar regions, which receive less sunlight, and less light is emitted from the colder Northern Hemisphere, which experiences winter at this time of year.

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However, temperature is not the only factor that affects the amount of 4.3-micron light that reaches Webb with this filter. As the light emitted by the planet passes through the Martian atmosphere, some of it is absorbed by carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) molecules. Hellas Basin, which is the largest well-preserved impact structure on Mars, stretching over 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles), it appears darker than its surroundings due to this effect.

The Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam camera captured light emitted by Mars in longer infrared wavelengths as it loses heat (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Mars JWST/GTO team)
The Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam camera captured light emitted by Mars in longer infrared wavelengths as it loses heat (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Mars JWST/GTO team)

“This is actually not a thermal effect in Hellas,” explained lead researcher Geronimo Villanueva of the Goddard Space Flight Center NASA, who designed these Webb observations. “The Hellas Basin is at a lower altitude and therefore experiences higher air pressure. That higher pressure leads to a suppression of thermal emission in this particular wavelength range. [4.1-4.4 micrones] due to an effect called pressure expansion. It will be very interesting to separate these competitive effects in this data.”

Villanueva and his team also released the first near-infrared spectrum of Mars from Webbdemonstrating Webb’s power to study the red planet with spectroscopy. While the images show built-in differences in brightness over a large number of wavelengths from place to place across the planet on a particular day and time, the spectrum shows the subtle variations in brightness between hundreds of different wavelengths. wave representative of the planet as a whole. Astronomers will analyze the features of the spectrum to gather additional information about the planet’s surface and atmosphere.

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This infrared spectrum was obtained by the combination of measurements from the six spectroscopy modes high resolution spectrograph near infrared Webb (NIRSpec). Preliminary analysis of the spectrum shows a rich set of spectral features containing information about dust, icy clouds, what kind of rocks are on the planet’s surface, and the composition of the atmosphere. Spectral signatures, including deep valleys known as absorption features, of water, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide are easily detected with Webb. The researchers have been analyzing the spectral data from these observations and are preparing a paper that they will submit to a scientific journal for review and publication.

In the future, the Mars team will use these imaging and spectroscopic data to explore regional differences across the planet and look for trace gases in the atmosphere, including methane and hydrogen chloride. The Webb Telescope is an international collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

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