NASA’s Webb Telescope’s first images of Mars reveal stunning detail beyond its blinding light


NASA’s Webb Telescope captures the first images and spectra of the Red Planet, revealing data under the planet’s blinding light. The new information will be used along with other data collected by orbiters, rovers and other telescopes to learn more about Mars.

While the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is located nearly a million miles from Mars, it is uniquely positioned on the planet. This perspective allows the telescope’s infrared instruments to collect data on Mars’ observable disk, even with the blinding light the planet reflects back toward JWST. Astronomers were able to overcome the intense light produced, using special observation techniques.

In a NASA blog, the space agency describes the light from Mars as blinding Webb’s highly sensitive instruments, causing a phenomenon known as “detector saturation”. The astronomers were able to overcome this saturation by using very short exposures, measuring only a selected amount of light hitting the detectors, and then applying special data analysis techniques.

The image above shows Webb’s first images of Mars using the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam). The image highlights a region of the planet’s eastern hemisphere in two different wavelengths, or colors of infrared light. The image on the left is a surface reference map from NASA and the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), with two fields of view from the Webb NIRCam instrument laid on top. JWST’s near-infrared imagery is shown to the right.

NIRCam’s shorter wavelength is dominated by sunlight, as seen in the top right image of the photo above. The Huygens Crater, the dark volcanic rock of Syrtis Major and the Hellas Basin are all evident in the image. NIRCam’s longer wavelength, as seen in the lower right image, shows the thermal emission, or light emitted by the planet as its temperature decreases.

Another view of Mars was captured by Webb, showing the space telescope’s unique ability to capture the planet using spectroscopy. Spectroscopy is a scientific method of studying objects and materials based on detailed patterns of colors or wavelengths, according to NASA.

Astronomers are currently analyzing the differences between different wavelengths in order to learn more about where on the planet at a particular time and day, as well as reveal more about Mars as a whole.

Infrared spectrum data was collected by Webb’s Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), which used the instruments’ six high-resolution spectroscopy modes. Early analyzes indicate a rich set of spectral features that present information regarding dust, icy clouds, as well as the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. This information is currently being prepared for an article that will be submitted to a scientific journal for peer review and publication.

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