Comets have mystified mankind for millennia, but with the James Webb Space Telescope beginning science operations this month, scientists are hoping to unlock secrets about these icy objects.
In a study led by Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy and interdisciplinary scientist Webb, the James Webb Space Telescopethe powerful infrared instruments of will be trained on three comets in the solar system. The objective will be to analyze the chemical compositions of comets. Because comets are some of the most primitive bodies in the solar system, this information could reveal clues to the solar system’s beginnings.
“We want to study comets with Webb because of the telescope’s very powerful capabilities in the near and mid-infrared,” Hammel said. said in a press release. “What makes these wavelengths of light particularly powerful for cometary studies is that they allow us to study the chemical composition of this dust and gas that emanates from the comet’s nucleus and to understand what it is.”
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Hammel’s team will observe three comets, each belonging to a different family of comets. The first will be a Jupiter-family comet – potentially Comet Borrelly, whose orbit is affected by the gas giant gravity. The second will be a main-belt comet – likely Comet Read.
The third will be what is called a “target comet of opportunity”, i.e. a comet that has not yet been discovered. The researchers hope that this third comet will be spotted by Webb before the start of this study and that it will belong to a different family of comets than the other two targets. In one possible scenario, the team would be able to study a Oort Cloud comet that could come from the outskirts of the solar system. Another possible ‘comet of opportunity’ could come from even further afield, just like interstellar objects ‘Oumuamua and C/2019 Q4 (Borisov).
“One of Webb’s strengths is its ability to detect faint objects, which makes it an excellent tool for studying these very rare, very faint interstellar intruders,” Hammel said. “If we could glean information about the composition of its surface, it could open up a whole new field of study.”
These three comets will be among the first observed by Webb, but they will certainly not be the last.
“At the end of the day, these are just individual examples, but over the course of Webb’s lifetime we will eventually observe many comets, and we will have many examples of these different classes, and we will all be able to compare them to each other. others,” Michael Kelley, a research associate at the University of Maryland who leads observations of the Jupiter family and main-belt comets, said in the statement. “Over time – and in conjunction with all the ground data we’ve had and will continue to get – we’ll have a better understanding of 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.