The James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope built by humans hands, will make time in its tight schedule to observe future interstellar visitors that could pay our solar system a visit.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the new kid on the block. In only a few weeks of operation, it has become a rockstar in astronomy and has already changed how we see the universe.
Not only is it taking incredible, breathtaking images of stars and galaxies, but it is also gathering important information about distant alien worlds.
But the James Webb Space Telescope can do even more. In fact, we can use it to better our understanding of our solar system.
We have seen Webb’s test images of the planets in our solar system and that the billion-dollar telescope is good enough to track asteroids.
Now, researchers want to use it and point it toward the next interstellar visitor to enter our solar system.
This makes the JWST a true space Swiss knife. Observing the stars of distant galaxies and peering through dense space dust are just some of the things it can see. Nevertheless, Webb’s most important research will focus on solving puzzles closer to home, like the intriguing dilemma of interstellar objects.
Not much is known about interstellar objects since the first time we actually saw one flying through our solar system was in 2017 when scientists discovered ‘Oumuamua.
When we first spotted ‘Oumuamua, the scientific community categorized it as an asteroid, then as a comet, then they weren’t sure whether it was either until they eventually decided it originated far away, in a distant solar system.
While two of these objects passed through our Solar System, astronomers tracked them and collected information from both ground and space-based telescopes. But the information we obtained from these observations was pretty limited.
For example, to this date, we have still no idea what ‘Oumuamua was and why it behaved so radically that a top Harvard astronomer believed the object might have even been an alien spaceship.
Webb can change the picture we currently have about interstellar objects thanks to its 6.5-meter mirror and advanced infrared cameras. Webb could help astronomers find more information about the solar systems they come from. These stars gave birth to them and answer many mysteries related to solar system formation and our galaxy.
A strange object streaking through the solar system was spotted by the Pan-STARRS telescope on Maui, Hawaii, on October 19, 2017. Due to its speed and extreme eccentricity, the object was not gravitationally bound to the Sun. It was the first interstellar object ever recorded, named ‘Oumuamua (meaning “messenger from afar”).
‘Oumuamua was described as “cigar-shaped,” its length being ten times its width, making it a strange object in space and first classified as a comet by astronomers. As a result of its lack of a coma, a kind of atmosphere that surrounds comets as ice sublimates, NASA reclassified it as an asteroid.
‘Oumuamua accelerated through the Solar System due to a cometary characteristic known as outgassing. And to further confuse matters, some astronomers believe the enigmatic object is neither an asteroid nor a comet but rather an iceberg of cosmic proportions.
In January 2018, no terrestrial or orbital telescope could detect ‘Oumuamua due to its small size. On its way to the constellation Pegasus, ‘Oumuamua has crossed the orbit of Neptune. There will never be another opportunity to study this once-in-a-lifetime object.
The discovery of ‘Oumuamua, along with the discovery of the rogue interstellar comet Borisov in 2019, is the only detection of an interstellar object in our solar system.
Webb’s plan is to gather both comet and asteroid experts for whatever the galaxy throws at us in the future because astronomers aren’t sure when the next interstellar object will fly across the sky or how long it will be visible. And as we can see from ‘Oumuamua, they will need the help of everyone.
As the Sun’s heat slowly vaporizes comet ices, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) at Webb will analyze their chemical composition. Astronomers can use this information to identify the host system in which an interstellar object might have formed. Because other ices require cooler temperatures, a large amount of water could point to the object coalescing near its star.
Webb will also be able to clarify the dust composition from these bodies by using the Mid-Infrared Instrument Instrument (MIRI). The data provided by this study could explain our solar system’s origins.
Like cosmic time capsules, comets preserve the past. The geology of the formation of comets is preserved for billions of years as ice encases them in the furthest regions of a star system.
Unlike comets, asteroids are often subject to higher temperatures, causing them to change or melt. While scientists think comets make up a majority of interstellar objects (because comets are more frequently ejected), an interstellar asteroid isn’t out of the question.
Through near- and mid-infrared wavelengths, Webb can see differences in silicates and mineral signatures, as well as possible surface hydration and the composition of its surface.
Although scientists are eager to observe the next interstellar object, they must first find one, which is no easy task.
A more accurate map of the Solar System will be produced as part of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). ‘Oumuamua was discovered with a 1.8-meter mirror by the Hawaiian Pan-STARRS telescope.
On the other hand, the Rubin telescope boasts a mirror nearly four times as large, which scientists estimate would multiply the number of objects in the Solar System by 10 (or even more). In addition to these, there may be some strange objects that originate from interstellar space due to their eccentricity and speed.
In light of the fact that scientists could find another interstellar object any day, NASA’s Target of Opportunity program is particularly relevant to this study. With one to three days’ notice, researchers can interrupt Webb’s scheduled programming to study time-sensitive phenomena like supernovae and interstellar objects.
Considering that this study falls under the category of “Disruptive Target of Opportunity,” the James Webb Space Telescope could focus its cameras within two weeks of discovery on an incoming interstellar object.
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