The James Webb Space Telescope takes its first images and spectra of Mars

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released the first images and infrared spectrum of Mars from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The Webb Telescope captured its first images and spectra of the Red Planet on September 5, 2022.

Webb is located about 1.5 million kilometers from our planet at the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L2). From the telescope’s vantage point, it gets a view of the observable disk of Mars, which is the portion of the sunlit side that faces the telescope. This allows JWST to acquire images and spectra with the specific resolution required to study short-term phenomena. These phenomena include dust storms, weather patterns, and seasonal changes.

While that doesn’t sound impressive for a telescope designed to see distant faint objects, it actually is. Mars is very close to Earth and is one of the brightest objects in the night sky, in both visible and infrared light. But because Webb’s instruments are so sensitive, the bright infrared light from Mars is nearly blinding, leading to what’s known as “detector saturation.”

Scientists must use special detection techniques to overcome this, including using very short exposure times and measuring only a portion of the light that hits the detectors. They then used special data analysis techniques to arrive at the image.

The JWST’s first images of Mars were captured by the near-infrared camera (NIRCam) and show part of the planet’s eastern hemisphere at two different wavelengths. The above image shows a surface reference map acquired by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor on the left and two overlaid Webb NIRCam instrument panels on the right.

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Spectrum data of Mars taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. (Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Mars JWST/GTO team)

The Webb images of Mars show variations in brightness across a large number of wavelengths from location to location across the planet at a given date and time. But the spectrum illustrates the subtle variations in brightness between hundreds of different wavelengths that represent the planet as a whole. Astronomers will analyze features of the spectrum to gather additional information about the planet’s surface and atmosphere.

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