To involve! NASA prepares the Webb Telescope camera that will find new alien worlds

a sea of ​​stars currently shines before the scientific eyes of the James Webb Space Telescope. In less than two months, scientists a million miles away on Earth will use the new observatory to detect unknown distant planets from subtle changes in these stellar brightnesses.

Only 5,000 of these distant worlds, commonly called exoplanets, have been detected to date; scientists estimate that our galaxy is home to 100 billion. Exoplanets lurk in many near corners of our galaxy, and some occasionally make their presence known in highly sensitive observatories, passing in front of their parent star and dimming their light from Earth’s perspective.

The space telescope is almost up to the task. There are only 200 milestones left to complete before Webb’s next-generation instruments are at the peak of observational capability. The telescope team whittled down to that number over the past five months from an initial list of more than 1,000 tasks. In this final leg of the commissioning race, teams will delve into the details of how the instruments work. Only after Webb’s devices have demonstrated their capabilities will they be released into the Universe.

An animation that begins with a view of the sky taken by NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope. The animation ends with a test image taken during commissioning of the Mid-Infrared Imager (MIRI) on the James Webb Space Telescope. MIRI is a companion to Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which will search for exoplanets. Spitzer: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left); MIRI: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right)

Webb near infrared camera

The James Webb Space Telescope will use its incredibly sensitive near-infrared camera, or NIRCam, to find more alien worlds. Teams from three space agencies – NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency – gave an update on Monday on the status of each of Webb’s four new imaging instruments, including the progress of NIRCam, considered the main imager. from Webb.

The telescope is a newcomer to space, launched during the last days of 2021. It still needs about two more months to be ready for its official “first light”. The showtime for science observations should start sometime this summer, in June or July. The Webb team will publish the first official images as a package called ERO, or “early release notes”.

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NIRCam deflected light from the surrounding universe last week so its mission team could calibrate its moving parts to get real data on the periodic dimming of a star’s light, which could signal the presence of a previously unknown planet.

“We’ve already issued nearly 15,000 commands to NIRCam,” Marcia Rieke, the instrument’s principal investigator and leading professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, told a news conference Monday. “Everything impeccable.”

Looking for exoplanets

Rieke’s team strives to provide high-quality images in all wavelengths of light for astronomers looking for exoplanets. To that end, “we’ve already taken more images like the one that was released, but using all NIRCam’s filters,” said Rieke.

NIRCam can perform some specialized maneuvers to detect these distant worlds, and the team has begun testing these designs. One important use, called time series observations, “is where you take a very long series of exposures to track what is happening during an exoplanet transit,” the term for this dip in light caused by a planet crossing the side of an exoplanet. star facing Earth.

An animation showing how four hypothetical exoplanets would block light from their parent star and signal their presence to astronomers. NASA

Rieke’s team has already witnessed an exoplanet transit. “When an exoplanet comes between us and its parent star, and we see the small dimming of the parent star’s light, we can analyze that and learn about that exoplanet. We have already done the first demonstration of this and are analyzing the data now.”

“We’ve proven that we can send the right command and timing sequence to the facility to pick up one of these transits. So that’s the first step. More to come.”

Successfully observing these blips requires NIRCam to settle into a configuration long enough to stabilize its moving parts.

“For the time series observations, we want to start far enough before the actual transit that any disturbances in it — with the detectors or anything in the instrument — have calmed down,” she said, explaining that detection involves “measuring very, very changes.” small on the sign.”

“So when you get to the target and start collecting data, you let it all work out and then you can start acquiring the data that you’re really going to rely on,” Rieke said. This process can range from 30 minutes to several hours. It depends on the type of star. “And of course, once you get to the target, you don’t disturb anything. You leave the filter setup, everything as it was.”

Preliminary tests of Webb’s NIRCam have already “impressed” Rieke.

“It’s like a whole new world,” she says. “Just unbelievably beautiful.”

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