Six months after the observatory was launched into space, an exoplanet hunter and first light detector on NASA’s next-generation space telescope is ready to do science.
The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is completing commissioning by testing its four state-of-the-art instruments and their various modes, which will allow Webb to study distant galaxies as well as closer objects in the Milky Way or the Solar System.
Now one of those instruments is operational as Webb officials prepare to release the observatory’s first operational images on July 12. (Exactly which objects these first images will show is a mystery.)
Dubbed the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph Instrument (NIRISS), the device, a Canadian contribution, “is working significantly better than we predicted,” principal investigator René Doyon, an exoplanet researcher and astronomical instruments expert at the Université de Montréal, told a NASA Explanation (opens in new tab).
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NIRISS will work with Canada’s Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS), which will allow the telescope to precisely aim at targets from its location in space. Doyon, also a principal investigator at FGS, said he’s excited about the new science.
“I pinch myself to think that we are only a few days away from the start of scientific operations and specifically NIRISS probing its first exoplanet atmospheres,” Doyon added in NASA’s Monday (June 27) blog post.
Both FGS and NIRISS were built by Honeywell and funded by the Canadian Space Agency. As a result of these contributions, Canadian researchers have a guaranteed share of the science on Webb, which will face stiff competition for proposal processes during the observatory’s expected 20-year lifetime.
The last NIRISS mode that was fully science-ready was slitless single object spectroscopy. In this mode, the instrument can separate incoming light from a distant object and measure the amount of light at specific wavelengths.
Because elements have a characteristic light signature (spectrum), this type of observation on NIRISS will allow researchers to deduce which elements are present in an exoplanet’s composition. For example, on giant planets, Webb can see trace amounts of oxygen or other elements commonly found in the solar system.
Such observations work by observing a planet as it passes or transits between its star and the telescope. By comparing observations of the star during and not during a transit, scientists can attribute chemical differences to an atmosphere on the planet.
Webb was launched on December 25, 2021. You can follow the instrument mode check-off list on NASA’s Where is Webb page (opens in new tab). The full listing of Webb’s first observing cycle is available at this website (opens in new tab) from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which runs the Webb operation.
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