The James Webb Telescope takes the first pictures of Mars

The new trademark James Webb Space Telescope caught them first pictures and spectra Mars On September 5, 2022, a unique perspective of the red planet with infrared sensitivity.

Webb’s unique observation site, approximately 1.5 million kilometers away at Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2 (L2), provides a view of Mars’ visible disk (the part of the sunlit side facing the telescope).

As a result, Webb is able to capture images and spectra with the spectral resolution needed to study short-term phenomena such as dust storms, weather patterns, seasonal changes, and, in a single observation, processes that occur at different times (during the day, sunset, sun and night) on a Martian day.

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Due to its close proximity to the Red Planet, the Red Planet is one of the brightest objects in the night sky in terms of visible light (which the human eye can see) and infrared light that Webb designed to detect. This poses particular challenges for the observatory, which is built to detect the very faint light from the most distant galaxies in the universe.

Webb’s instruments are so sensitive that without special observing techniques, the bright infrared light coming from Mars would lead to blindness, causing a phenomenon known as “detector saturation.” Astronomers tuned to the extreme brightness of Mars using very short exposures, measuring only a portion of the light hitting detectors, and applying special techniques to analyze the data.

Webb’s first images of Mars, taken by the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), show a region of the planet’s eastern hemisphere at different wavelengths, or different colors of infrared light. This image shows a reference map of the NASA surface and the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on the left, with the two fields of view from the Webb NIRCam instrument superimposed. Webb’s near-infrared images are shown on the right.

Webb’s first near-infrared spectrum of Mars, captured by NIRSpec, shows Webb’s ability to study the Red Planet using spectroscopy.

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While images of Mars show embedded differences in brightness over a large number of wavelengths from one place to another across the planet on a specific day and time, the spectrum shows subtle differences in brightness between hundreds of different wavelengths. The wavelengths represent the planet as a whole. Astronomers will analyze features of the spectrum to gather additional information about the planet’s surface and atmosphere.

In the future, Webb will use this spectroscopic and imaging data to explore regional differences across the planet and search for trace species in the atmosphere, including methane and hydrogen chloride.

These observations of Mars were made as part of Webb’s Cycle 1 Guaranteed Time Observing (GTO) program for the solar system, led by Heidi Hamill of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

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