James Webb Telescopes discovers Mars, the brightest object in the night sky

The main goal of the James Webb Space Telescope is to detect faint lights from distant galaxies, but it recently observed one of the brightest objects in the night sky: Mars.

The space observatory captured its first images and data of the Red Planet on September 5th.

Several orbiters over Mars and the land-based rovers Curiosity and Perseverance roam the surface, sending back intelligence regularly. Webb’s infrared capabilities are contributing to another perspective that could reveal details about the Martian surface and atmosphere.

Webb, located a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth, can see the sunlit side of Mars facing the space telescope, putting the observatory in the perfect position to see seasonal changes, dust storms, and to observe the weather of the planet at once.

The telescope is so sensitive that astronomers had to make adjustments to keep Mars’ blinding infrared light from saturating Webb’s detectors. Instead, Webb observed Mars using very short exposure times.

The new images show the eastern hemisphere of Mars in different wavelengths of infrared light. At left is a reference map of the hemisphere taken by the Mars Global Surveyor mission, which ended in 2006.

Webb’s upper-right image shows reflected sunlight off the Martian surface and shows Martian features such as Huygens Crater, dark volcanic rocks, and Hellas Planitia, a massive impact crater on the red planet that stretches more than 2,000 kilometers. .

The bottom right image shows Mars’ thermal emission, or the light the planet emits as it loses heat. The brightest areas indicate the warmest spots. The astronomers also discovered something else in the thermal emission image.

As this thermal light penetrates the Martian atmosphere, some of it is absorbed by carbon dioxide molecules. This phenomenon has caused Hellas Planitia to appear darker.

“This is not actually a thermal effect at Hellas,” Geronimo Villanueva, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.

“The Hellas Basin is at a lower elevation and therefore experiences higher air pressure,” said Villanueva, who is also the principal investigator on the Mars and Ocean Worlds studies for Webb. “This higher pressure leads to a suppression of thermal emission in this particular wavelength range due to an effect called pressure broadening. It will be very interesting to distinguish these competing effects in this data.”

Using Webb’s powerful skills, Villanueva and his team also captured the first near-infrared spectrum of Mars.

The spectrum points to more subtle differences in brightness on the planet that could highlight aspects of the Martian surface and atmosphere. A first analysis has revealed information about ice clouds, dust, rock types on the surface and the composition of the atmosphere contained in the spectrum. There are also signatures of water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

The NASA research team will share more about Webb’s observations of Mars in a study that will be submitted for peer review and publication in the future. And the Mars team looks forward to using Webb’s skills to spot the differences between regions on the red planet and look for gases like methane and hydrogen chloride in the atmosphere.

https://abc7.com/james-webb-telescope-mars-blinding-light-brightest-planet/12241554/ James Webb Telescopes discovers Mars, the brightest object in the night sky

Laura Coffey

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