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Meet the Infrared Telescopes That Paved the Way for NASA’s Webb


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Scientists have been studying the universe with infrared space telescopes for 40 years, including these NASA missions, from left: the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), launched in 1983; the Spitzer Space Telescope, launched in 2003; and the James Webb Space Telescope, launched in 2021.
Scientists have been studying the universe with infrared space telescopes for 40 years, including these NASA missions, from left: the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), launched in 1983; the Spitzer Space Telescope, launched in 2003; and the James Webb Space Telescope, launched in 2021.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Webb telescope has opened a new window onto the universe, but it builds on missions going back 40 years, including Spitzer and the Infrared Astronomical Satellite.

On Dec. 25, NASA will celebrate the two-year launch anniversary of the James Webb Space Telescope – the largest and most powerful space observatory in history. The clarity of its images has inspired the world, and scientists are just beginning to explore the scientific bounty it is returning.

Webb’s success builds on four decades of space telescopes that also detect infrared light (which is invisible to the naked eye) – in particular the work of two retired NASA telescopes with big anniversaries this past year: January marked the 40th year since the launch of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), while August marked the 20th launch anniversary of the Spitzer Space Telescope.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope builds on four decades of work by space telescopes that also detect infrared light, in particular two other retired NASA telescopes: the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This heritage shines through in NASA’s images of Rho Ophiuchi, one of the closest star-forming regions to Earth. IRAS was the first infrared telescope ever launched into Earth orbit, above the atmosphere that blocks most infrared wavelengths. Rho Ophiuchi’s thick clouds of gas and dust block visible light, but IRAS’ infrared vision made it the first observatory to be able to pierce those layers to reveal newborn stars nestled deep inside.

Twenty years later, Spitzer’s multiple infrared detectors helped astronomers assign more specific ages to many of the stars in the region, providing insights about how young stars throughout the universe evolve. Webb’s even more detailed infrared view shows jets bursting from young stars, as well as disks of material around them – the makings of future planetary systems.

Another example is Fomalhaut, a star surrounded by a disk of debris similar to our asteroid belt. Forty years ago, the disk was one of IRAS’ major discoveries because it also strongly suggested the presence of at least one planet, at a time when no planets had yet been found outside the solar system. Subsequent observations by Spitzer showed the disk had two sections – a cold, outer region and a warm, inner region – and revealed more evidence of the presence of planets.

Many other telescopes, including NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, have since studied Fomalhaut, and earlier this year, images from Webb gave scientists their clearest view of the disk structure yet. It revealed two previously unseen rings of rock and gas in the inner disk. Combining the work of generations of telescopes is bringing the story of Fomalhaut into sharp relief.

Visionary Infrared Astronomy Survey

When IRAS launched in 1983, scientists weren’t sure what the mission would reveal. They couldn’t predict that infrared would eventually be used in almost every area of astronomy, including studies of the evolution of galaxies, the life cycle of stars, the source of pervasive cosmic dust, the atmospheres of exoplanets, the movements of asteroids and other near-Earth objects, and even the nature of one of the biggest cosmological mysteries in history, dark energy.

IRAS set the stage for the European-led Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) and the Herschel Space Observatory; the Japanese-led AKARI satellite; NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), and the agency’s airborne SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), as well as many balloon-lofted observatories.

“Infrared light is essential for understanding where we came from and how we got here, on both the biggest and smallest astrophysical scales,” said Michael Werner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Werner, who specializes in infrared observations, served as project scientist for Spitzer. “We use infrared to look back in space and time, to help us understand how the modern universe came to be. And infrared enables us to study the formation and evolution of stars and planets, which tells us about the history of our own solar system.”

On to Spitzer

If IRAS was a pathfinding mission, Spitzer was designed to dive deep into the infrared universe. Many of Webb’s planetary targets in its first year had already been studied with Spitzer, which pursued a broad range of science goals, thanks to its wide field of view and relatively high resolution. During its 16-year mission, Spitzer uncovered new wonders from the edge of the universe (including some of the most distant galaxies ever observed at the time) to our own solar system (such as a new ring around Saturn). Researchers were also surprised to find that the telescope was a perfect tool for studying exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system), something they hadn’t expected when building it.

“With any telescope, you’re not just taking data for the sake of it; you’re asking a particular question or a series of questions,” said Sean Carey, a former manager for the Spitzer Science Center at IPAC, a data and science processing center at Caltech. “The questions we’re able to ask with Webb are much more complex and varied because of the knowledge we acquired with telescopes like Spitzer and IRAS.”

For example, Carey said, “We studied exoplanets with Spitzer and Hubble, and we figured out what you can do with an infrared telescope in that field, what types of planets are most interesting, and what you can learn about them. So when Webb launched, we jumped into exoplanet studies right from the get-go.”

Webb, too, is paving the way for future infrared missions. NASA’s upcoming SPHEREx (Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer) mission as well as the agency’s next flagship observatory, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, will continue to explore the universe in infrared.

More About the Missions

IRAS was a joint project of NASA, the Netherlands Agency for Aerospace Programmes, and the United Kingdom’s Science and Engineering Research Council. The mission was managed for NASA by JPL. Caltech in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about IRAS, visit:

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/infrared-astronomical-satellite-iras

JPL managed the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington until the mission was retired in January 2020. Science operations were conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. Spacecraft operations were based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive operated by IPAC at Caltech.

For more information about Spitzer, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/spitzer

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

For more information about Webb, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/webb

News Media Contact

Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
626-808-2469
calla.e.cofield@jpl.nasa.gov

2023-186

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      News Media Contact
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      626-808-2469
      calla.e.cofield@jpl.nasa.gov
      2024-085
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      Media Contacts
      Laura Betz – laura.e.betz@nasa.gov, Rob Gutro – rob.gutro@nasa.gov
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
      Ann Jenkins – jenkins@stsci.edu / Christine Pulliam – cpulliam@stsci.edu
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
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      Planet-forming disks around very low-mass stars are difficult to study because they are smaller and fainter than disks around high-mass stars. A program called the MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) Mid-INfrared Disk Survey (MINDS) aims to use Webb’s unique capabilities to build a bridge between the chemical inventory of disks and the properties of exoplanets.
      Image A: Artist’s Concept of Protoplanetary Disk
      This is an artist’s impression of a young star surrounded by a disk of gas and dust. An international team of astronomers has used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to study the disk around a young and very low-mass star known as ISO-ChaI 147. The results reveal the richest hydrocarbon chemistry seen to date in a protoplanetary disk. “Webb has better sensitivity and spectral resolution than previous infrared space telescopes,” explained lead author Aditya Arabhavi of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “These observations are not possible from Earth, because the emissions from the disk are blocked by our atmosphere.”
      In a new study, this team explored the region around a very low-mass star known as ISO-ChaI 147, a 1 to 2 million-year-old star that weighs just 0.11 times as much as the Sun. The spectrum revealed by Webb’s MIRI shows the richest hydrocarbon chemistry seen to date in a protoplanetary disk – a total of 13 different carbon-bearing molecules. The team’s findings include the first detection of ethane (C2H6) outside of our solar system, as well as ethylene (C2H4), propyne (C3H4), and the methyl radical CH3.
      “These molecules have already been detected in our solar system, like in comets such as 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy),” added Arabhavi. “Webb allowed us to understand that these hydrocarbon molecules are not just diverse but also abundant. It is amazing that we can now see the dance of these molecules in the planetary cradles. It is a very different planet-forming environment than we usually think of.”
      Image B: Protoplanetary disk of ISO-ChaI 147 (MIRI emission spectrum)
      The team indicates that these results have large implications for the chemistry of the inner disk and the planets that might form there. Since Webb revealed the gas in the disk is so rich in carbon, there is likely little carbon left in the solid materials that planets would form from. As a result, the planets that might form there may ultimately be carbon-poor. (Earth itself is considered carbon-poor.)
      “This is profoundly different from the composition we see in disks around solar-type stars, where oxygen bearing molecules like water and carbon dioxide dominate,” added team member Inga Kamp, also of the University of Groningen. “This object establishes that these are a unique class of objects.”
      “It’s incredible that we can detect and quantify the amount of molecules that we know well on Earth, such as benzene, in an object that is more than 600 light-years away,” added team member Agnés Perrin of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France.
      Next, the science team intends to expand their study to a larger sample of such disks around very low-mass stars to develop their understanding of how common or exotic such carbon-rich terrestrial planet-forming regions are. “The expansion of our study will also allow us to better understand how these molecules can form,” explained team member and principal investigator of the MINDS program, Thomas Henning, of the Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy in Germany. “Several features in the Webb data are also still unidentified, so more spectroscopy is required to fully interpret our observations.”
      This work also highlights the crucial need for scientists to collaborate across disciplines. The team notes that these results and the accompanying data can contribute towards other fields including theoretical physics, chemistry, and astrochemistry, to interpret the spectra and to investigate new features in this wavelength range.
      The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).
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      Media Contacts
      Laura Betz – laura.e.betz@nasa.gov, Rob Gutro – rob.gutro@nasa.gov
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
      Christine Pulliam – cpulliam@stsci.edu
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
      Related Information
      Infographic: Destiny of Dust
      Infographic: Recipe for Planet Formation
      Animation: Exploring Star and Planet Formation
      Video: Scientists’ Perspective: Science Snippets
      More Webb News – https://science.nasa.gov/mission/webb/latestnews/
      More Webb Images – https://science.nasa.gov/mission/webb/multimedia/images/
      Webb Mission Page – https://science.nasa.gov/mission/webb/
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      Last Updated Jun 06, 2024 Editor Stephen Sabia Contact Laura Betz laura.e.betz@nasa.gov Related Terms
      Astrophysics Exoplanet Science Exoplanets James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Missions Planetary Nebulae Planetary Science Planets Science & Research Studying Exoplanets The Universe View the full article
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