If you wish to know the evolution of planets, it helps to identify them young.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s (JSWT) near-infrared instruments have entered its chilling stage of Mid InraRed (MIRI) instrument’s, where it will continue to cool until its temperature falls below 7 Kelvin (447 degrees Fahrenheit).
As the scientific world eagerly awaits Webb’s initial study of the first stars & galaxies of the early Universe, there’s more to come beyond these milestones: Webb will also explore the Milky Way, particularly where planets & stars come in-to being.
As our picture of the galaxy deeper, so does our understanding of how Earth-like planets and perhaps even extraterrestrial life form.
JSWT could detect stars less than 100,000 years old
“In the first year of science operation, we expect JSWT to write entirely new chapters in history of our origins: the formation of stars & planets,” Webb project scientist Klaus Pontoppidan of Space Telescope Science Institute said in press release from Goddard Space Flight Center.
“It is Webb’s study of star & planet formation that allows us to connect observations of mature exoplanets to their natal environments and our solar system to its own origins,” added Pontoppidan.
“Webb’s infrared capabilities are ideal for revealing how stars & planets form for 3 reasons: Infrared light is great for seeing through obscuring-dust, picking up heat signature of young stars & planets, and revealing the presence of important chemical compounds like water & organic chemistry.
Pontoppidan emphasized how often scientists talk about infrared light penetrating through (obscuring) dust. “Indeed, mid-infrared light as seen by MIRI can penetrate clouds 20 times thicker than visible light,” he explained. Since young stars form in short cosmic time-span, sometimes as little as 100,000 years, “their natal clouds have not had time to disperse, hiding what’s occurring on this important stage from visible view.”
And Webb’s infrared spectrum observing skills will allow scientists to closely study these “natal” stages of solar systems; when gas & dust are “actively collapsing to form new stars,” Pontoppidan said.
Webb’s infrared instrument could reveal evolution of new stars & planets
“The second reason has to do with the young stars & giant planets themselves,” added Pontoppidan. “Both begin lives as large, swollen structures that contract over-time.” Young stars are known to grow hotter as they begin to mature, while giant planets get cooler, but that means both “emit more light in the infrared than at visible wavelength range“.
And this puts Webb in an ideal position to discover new stars & young planets while unlocking key features early in their evolution. “Previous infrared observatories like the Spitzer Space Telescope used similar techniques for the nearest star-forming clusters, but Webb will discover new young stars throughout the galaxy, in the Magellanic Clouds and beyond,” Pontoppidan said.
As MIRI continues its cooling process, scientists continue to prepare for the big discoveries that await them once it is put to the test. In addition to examining commonalities in early star & planet formation, MIRI may only need a trace of waste heat from another world to confirm a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence.
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