Webb telescope to study 'ocean worlds' in the solar system

The James Webb Space Telescope is the scientific complement to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and is the most powerful space telescope ever built.
By Amy Wallace  |  Aug. 24, 2017 at 4:21 PM
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Aug. 24 (UPI) -- Scientists at NASA will use the James Webb Space Telescope will study the ocean worlds of Jupiter and Saturn's moons using infrared capabilities to gather data that may help guide missions to them in the future.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the scientific complement to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, and is the most powerful space telescope ever built, and the space agency announced Thursday it will study the ocean worlds of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus.

One of the telescope's science goals is to study planets that may help uncover the origins of life.

Scientists are particularly interested in the plumes of water that breach the surface of Enceladus and Europa, which are a mixture of water vapor and simple organic chemicals.

NASA's Cassini-Huygens and Galileo missions, and the Hubble Space Telescope, previously gathered evidence that these jets are the result of geologic processes heating large subsurface oceans.

"We chose these two moons because of their potential to exhibit chemical signatures of astrobiological interest," Heidi Hammel, astronomer and executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, or AURA, said in a press release.

Hammel is part of the team with Geronimo Villanueva, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on the Webb project.

The team will use the telescope's near-infrared camera, or NIRCam, to take high-resolution imagery of Europa to study its surface and search for hot surface regions indicative of plume activity and active geologic processes.

When a plume is located, they will use the near-infrared spectograph, or NIRSpec, and mid-infrared instrument, or MIRI, to spectroscopically analyze its composition.

"Are they made of water ice? Is hot water vapor being released? What is the temperature of the active regions and the emitted water?" Villanueva said. "Webb telescope's measurements will allow us to address these questions with unprecedented accuracy and precision."

Enceladus is nearly 10 times smaller than Europa, so high-resolution imagery of its surface will not be possible but the telescope will still be able to analyze the molecular composition of the moon's plumes and conduct analysis of its surface features.

The team said it plans to use NIRSpec to search for organic signatures such as methane, methanol and ethane in the plumes of both moons if the timing of emissions is right.

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