NASA hopes the James Webb Space Telescope will reveal the secrets of ‘super-Earths’ and hot rocky worlds
Some of the first investigations from the James Webb Space Telescope will focus on a variety of planets very different from those found in our cosmic neighborhood.
Once Webb finishes its six-month start-up period around June, it is scheduled to begin a series of studies on exoplanets. One such project will study 11 “super-Earths,” which are worlds between the sizes of Earth and Neptune. There are no such planets in our solar system.
“In our solar system, we have the inner rocky worlds and the outer gas planets, but the most common exoplanets we see are actually in the middle,” Natasha Batalha, a research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in NASA, said in a statement. California. “The diversity of planets we have discovered within the galaxy far exceeds the diversity of planets within our own solar system.”
Despite having found so many of these “in-between” worlds, scientists know very little about this type of planet, such as how habitable these worlds might be and how they form. A key challenge is that there are no planets like these for scientists to study close to home, so Batalha and her colleagues will turn Webb’s powerful vision into a set of super-Earths in hopes of unlocking some insights.
Super-Earth research isn’t the only exoplanet project Ames scientists have planned for Webb’s first year; NASA highlighted two other investigations set for early-stage studies by Webb.
The first is a study of nine planets that are less massive and cooler than the best-studied worlds, led by Ames astrophysicist Thomas Greene. The second, which includes the participation of Batalha, focuses on two planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system and three other rocky worlds.
For these last two studies, Webb will work to determine whether a planet has an atmosphere and, if so, what it is made of. Scientists aren’t sure if planets in close proximity to their star could have a substantial atmosphere, since stellar energy could blow it away. (An example of such a dubious world is TRAPPIST-1b.)
“A planet’s atmosphere is essential to the possibility of life as we know it,” Greene said in the same NASA statement. “We have developed the Webb instruments to be able to give us the data we need not only to detect atmospheres, but also to determine what they are made of.”
Webb will also collect the spectrum of each of these planets, to see the type of light it emits. This in turn gives clues as to what gases are in the atmosphere. “The study will focus on the planet’s infrared emissions and look for signs of carbon dioxide. If there are signs of the presence of an atmosphere, and especially carbon dioxide, then TRAPPIST-1b could have formed and evolved like the rocky planets in our own solar system. that also have carbon dioxide: Venus, Earth and Mars, “said NASA.