We’re only weeks away from releasing the first images taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, and while this occasion will be momentous, there’s still a lot of science to come.
A die James Webb Space TelescopeThe first programs of are a study that plans to use Webb to observe the nearby stellar nursery NGC 1333. The international team of scientists will photograph the small faint residents of the stellar nursery – mainly brown dwarfs and rogue planets – which have been difficult to see with less powerful telescopes.
Brown dwarfs are considered to be failing stars. Although they begin life the same way real stars do, in collapsing clouds of gas and dust, they don’t gather enough mass to begin merging. Thus, they are quite small and do not produce bright light like other stars do, which makes them difficult to see. Brown dwarfs exist somewhere between gas giant planets and red dwarfsthe smallest and coolest type of main sequence star.
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“The least massive brown dwarfs identified so far are only five to ten times heavier than the planet Jupiter“, Alek Scholz, astronomer at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and leader of the study, said in a press release. “We don’t yet know if even lower-mass objects are forming in stellar nurseries. Together with Webb, we expect to identify members of the cluster as puny as Jupiter for the very first time.”
The team will also study rogue planets, or celestial bodies that formed in a star system before being ejected into space, left to float freely among the stars. (True planets and exoplanets are gravitationally bound to the stars.)
To observe these small, dark objects, researchers will use Webb’s near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph, allowing scientists to do spectroscopy on dozens of objects at the same time.
“For unambiguous confirmation of a brown dwarf or rogue planet, we need to see the absorption signatures of the molecules – water and methane, primarily – in the spectrum,” said Ray Jayawardhana, astronomer at Cornell University and member of the research team. said in the press release. “Spectroscopy takes time, and being able to observe many objects simultaneously helps enormously. The alternative is to first take images, measure colors, select candidates, and then go and take spectra, which will take a lot longer and rely on more assumptions.”
The study is part of Cycle 1 of the Guaranteed Time Observations Program, which will take place during Webb’s first year of operation.