The James Webb Space Telescope can now track moving targets in our solar system

Now it can study planets, their satellites, and more in our neighborhood.
Brad Bergan
Webb in space (left), and a composite image of several NASA images (right).1, 2

Near or far, the universe is brimming with wondrous mysteries.

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is plowing through its remaining phases before beginning its exploration of the universe in earnest. Much of its studies will involve unspeakably distant stars and galaxies, the proper study of which requires extreme precision.

But planets, their satellites, and asteroids are also on the menu for Webb, and these move against the background of stars in the cosmos. This means Webb will have to "lock on" to moving targets and track them well enough to collect full images and spectra.

And this week, the Webb team finished testing Webb's abilities to hunt down and capture moving targets in deep space, according to a blog post from NASA — marking the beginning of the space-based platform's moving target science.

This is huge.

The James Webb Space Telescope will explore our own solar system

The next step is to carry on testing the James Webb Space Telescope's ability to track other objects moving at different speeds, to confirm Webb's effectiveness in studying the wide variety of objects zipping about in our own solar system.

"I am really excited about Webb's upcoming first year of science operations!" said Webb Interdisciplinary Scientist for solar system observations, Heidi Hammel, in the blog post. "I lead a team of equally excited astronomers eager to begin downloading data."

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"Webb can detect the faint light of the earliest galaxies,  but my team will be observing much closer to home," added Hammel. "They will use Webb to unravel some of the mysteries that abound in our own solar system."

If you're wondering why we need a device with the power of the James Webb Space Telescope to study objects within our solar system. Hammel has an answer: "We planetary scientists use telescopes to complement our in situ missions (missions that we send to fly by, orbit, or land on objects)."

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Uranus NASA
Webb's MIRI fields juxtaposed to Uranus, including its ring(s). Source: NASA / L. Sromovsky, Leigh Fletcher

The James Webb Space Telescope tracked a moving target: 6481 Tenzing

Scientists employed Hubble to see where the New Horizons spacecraft should go after it made its Pluto flyby, in 2015. That object was Arrokoth. While a group of scientists is pushing for NASA to probe Uranus with a flagship mission by 2032, we can already use space telescopes that are far away from it and other ice giants, like Neptune, to better grasp our solar system.

Space telescopes like Webb can also take measurements of large populations of objects in space, "such as hundreds of asteroids or Kuiper Belt Objects (small ice worlds beyond the orbits of Neptune, including Pluto), since we can only send missions to just a few of these."

The Webb team targeted an asteroid in our solar system to execute engineering tests of a "moving target" (MT) ability. Specifically, Webb's instruments were trained on a small asteroid in the Main Belt, called 6481 Tenzing. But there's far more for Webb to explore in the solar system besides asteroids with cool names.

Europa NASA
Webb could also help us uncover subsurface oceans on Europa. Source: NASA-GSFC / SVS, Hubble Space Telescope, Stefanie Milam, Geronimo Villanueva

Webb could help uncover the mysteries of Europa's oceans

"Our solar system has far more mysteries than my team had time to solve. Our programs will observe objects across the solar system: We will image the giant planets and Saturn’s rings; explore many Kuiper Belt Objects; analyze the atmosphere of Mars; execute detailed studies of Titan; and much more!" exclaimed Hammel. "There are also other teams planning observations; in its first year, 7 percent of Webb’s time will be focused on objects within our solar system."

Surely, with other fascinating planetary bodies like Europa — which emits plumes thought to stem from vast subsurface oceans — and many more, the James Webb Space Telescope will become a crucial link in solving some of the most profound questions in astronomy, planetary science, and astrophysics. Not only at the farthest reaches of the ancient universe, but here in our solar system, too.

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