NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured its first images and observations of Mars. The telescope, an international collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), allows a unique perspective thanks to its infrared sensitivity.
Webb can capture images and observations with the spectral resolution needed to study short-term phenomena such as dust storms, weather patterns, seasonal changes, and processes that occur at different times (day, night, and sunset) of a Martian day.
Given that it is so close, the Red Planet is one of the brightest objects in the night sky, both in terms of light visible to the human eye and in terms of infrared light, and Webb is designed to detect the latter.
Webb’s first images of Mars
This is a particular challenge for the space observatory, built to detect the extremely faint light from the most distant galaxies in the Universe. Webb’s instruments are so sensitive that without special observation techniques, the bright infrared light from Mars is blinding, thus causing a phenomenon known as “detector saturation.” Astronomers adjusted the space telescope for the brightness of Mars using very short exposures, measuring only a fraction of the light that reached the detectors, and then applying special analysis techniques.
Webb’s first images of Mars, captured by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), show, among other things, a region in the planet’s eastern hemisphere.
Information about dust, frozen clouds, surface rocks and the composition of the atmosphere
Although the images show brightness differences integrated over a vast number of wavelengths from multiple regions of the Red Planet at any given time of day, the spectrum shows the subtle variations in brightness among the hundreds of different wavelengths that represent the Red Planet as a whole. Astronomers will analyze the elements of the spectrum to gather additional information about the surface and atmosphere of Mars.
The infrared spectrum was obtained by combining measurements from all six high-resolution spectroscopy modes of Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) instrument. Preliminary analyzes of the spectrum reveal a diverse range of spectral features that contain information about dust, frozen clouds, surface rocks, and atmospheric composition.
Spectral signatures, easily detected by Webb
The spectral signatures, including deep valleys known as absorption features, of water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide are easily detected by Webb. The researchers analyzed the spectral data from these observations and are preparing to publish a study on it.
In the future, scientists will use these images and spectroscopic data to explore the planet’s regional differences and search for gases in the atmosphere, including methane and hydrogen chloride, according to an announcement by GODMOTHER.