Comets have puzzled mankind for millennia, but as the James Webb Space Telescope begins scientific operations this month, scientists are hoping to unravel mysteries about these icy objects.
In a study led by Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy and an interdisciplinary Webb scientist, the James Webb Space TelescopeThe powerful infrared instruments from are trained to three comets in which solar system. The goal will be to analyze the chemical composition of the comets. Since comets are among the most primitive bodies in the solar system, this information could provide clues to the early life of the solar system.
“We want to study comets with Webb because the telescope has very powerful capabilities in the near and mid-infrared,” says Hammel said in a statement. “What makes these wavelengths of light particularly powerful for cometary studies is that they allow us to study the chemical makeup of this dust and gas that comes out of the comet’s nucleus and figure out what it is.”
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Hammel’s team will observe three comets, each from a different comet family. The first will be one Jupiter-Family Comet – Possibly Comet Borrelly, whose orbit is influenced by that of the gas giant heaviness. The second will be a main belt comet – probably Comet Read.
The third will be a so-called “target-of-opportunity comet”, ie a comet that has not yet been discovered. The researchers hope that this third comet will be spotted by Webb before this study begins and will belong to a different comet family than the other two targets. In one possible scenario, the team would be able to investigate one Oort cloud Comet that may have formed on the edge of the solar system. Another possible “opportunity comet” could be even further away, as could the interstellar objects ‘Oumuamua and C/2019 Q4 (Borisov).
“One of Webb’s strengths is its ability to detect faint objects, and that makes it a great tool to study these very rare and very faint interstellar invaders,” Hammel said. “If we could gather compositional information about its surface, that could open up a whole new area of study.”
These three comets will be some of the first observed by Webb, but certainly not the last.
“Ultimately, these are just isolated examples, but eventually over the course of Webb’s life, we’re going to observe a lot of comets, and we’re going to have a lot of examples from these different classes, and we can compare them all,” says Michael Kelley, an associate research scientist from the University of Maryland, which leads observations of the Jupiter family and major belt comets, the statement said. “Over time – and coupled with all the ground-based data we have had and will continue to receive – we will better understand where these comets are coming from.”
The study is part of Cycle 1 of the Guaranteed Time Observations program, which will take place during Webb’s first year of operation.