NASA recently released an exciting discovery, revealing seven Earth-sized planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star. Three of these planets were located inside the habitable zone, measuring 40 light years away. As its name suggests, the habitable zone outlines an area that can support liquid water under the right atmospheric conditions.
“If these planets have atmospheres, the James Webb Space Telescope will be the key to unlocking their secrets,” says Doug Hudgins, Exoplanet Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “In the meantime, NASA’s missions like Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler are following up on these planets.”
Engineers are focused on testing and expanding the Webb telescope’s capabilities in order to study these regions that may be conducive to life. One goal is to develop the telescope’s wavelength coverage, which will increase the atmospheric information relayed to scientists such as water, methane, oxygen, and carbon monoxide/dioxide.
With an expected 2018 launch, spectroscopy will be one of the telescope’s main techniques. Spectroscopy is a method that investigates the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation. This will allow the telescope to separate light into distinct wavelengths, which will reveal different atmospheric chemical components based on the wavelength’s unique signature.
The Webb telescope has four main science instruments contained in its Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) – a near-infrared camera (NIRCam), near-infrared spectrograph (NIRSpec), mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), and a find guidance sensor/near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS).
In addition to the four main components, many smaller structures go into the ISIM design. These include the cryogenic thermal control system, ISIM flight software, ISIM electronics compartment (IEC), and much more.
With this mixture of technological power and curiosity, perhaps the James Webb Space Telescope can help humanity answer a lingering, age-old question – are we alone?
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense