From NASA Webb: “NASA’s Webb Telescope to Investigate Mysterious Brown Dwarfs”

NASA Webb Header

NASA Webb Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope

Jan. 4, 2018
Leah Ramsay
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. Astronomers are hopeful that the powerful infrared capability of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will resolve a puzzle as fundamental as stargazing itself — what IS that dim light in the sky? Brown dwarfs muddy a clear distinction between stars and planets, throwing established understanding of those bodies, and theories of their formation, into question.

1
Stellar cluster NGC 1333 is home to a large number of brown dwarfs. Astronomers will use Webb’s powerful infrared instruments to learn more about these dim cousins to the cluster’s bright newborn stars. Credits: NASA/CXC/JPL

Several research teams will use Webb to explore the mysterious nature of brown dwarfs, looking for insight into both star formation and exoplanet atmospheres, and the hazy territory in-between where the brown dwarf itself exists. Previous work with Hubble, Spitzer, and ALMA have shown that brown dwarfs can be up to 70 times more massive than gas giants like Jupiter, yet they do not have enough mass for their cores to burn nuclear fuel and radiate starlight.

NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

NASA/Spitzer Infrared Telescope

ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

Though brown dwarfs were theorized in the 1960s and confirmed in 1995, there is not an accepted explanation of how they form: like a star, by the contraction of gas, or like a planet, by the accretion of material in a protoplanetary disk? Some have a companion relationship with a star, while others drift alone in space.

At the Université de Montréal, Étienne Artigau leads a team that will use Webb to study a specific brown dwarf, labeled SIMP0136.

2
SIMP0136+0933. http://www.exoplanetkyoto.org

It is a low-mass, young, isolated brown dwarf — one of the closest to our Sun — all of which make it fascinating for study, as it has many features of a planet without being too close to the blinding light of a star. SIMP0136 was the object of a past scientific breakthrough by Artigau and his team, when they found evidence suggesting it has a cloudy atmosphere. He and his colleagues will use Webb’s spectroscopic instruments to learn more about the chemical elements and compounds in those clouds.

“Very accurate spectroscopic measurements are challenging to obtain from the ground in the infrared due to variable absorption in our own atmosphere, hence the need for space-based infrared observation. Also, Webb allows us to probe features, such as water absorption, that are inaccessible from the ground at this level of precision,” Artigau explains.

2
Artist’s conception of a brown dwarf, featuring the cloudy atmosphere of a planet and the residual light of an almost-star. Credits: NASA/ESA/JPL

These observations could lay groundwork for future exoplanet exploration with Webb, including which worlds could support life. Webb’s infrared instruments will be capable of detecting the types of molecules in the atmospheres of exoplanets by seeing which elements are absorbing light as the planet passes in front of its star, a scientific technique known as transit spectroscopy.

“The brown dwarf SIMP0136 has the same temperature as various planets that will be observed in transit spectroscopy with Webb, and clouds are known to affect this type of measurement; our observations will help us better understand cloud decks in brown dwarfs and planet atmospheres in general,” Artigau says.

The search for low-mass, isolated brown dwarfs was one of the early science goals put forward for the Webb telescope in the 1990s, says astronomer Aleks Scholz of the University of St. Andrews. Brown dwarfs have a lower mass than stars and do not “shine” but merely emit the dim afterglow of their birth, and so they are best seen in infrared light, which is why Webb will be such a valuable tool in this research.

Scholz, who also leads the Substellar Objects in Nearby Young Clusters (SONYC) project, will use Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) to study NGC 1333 in the constellation of Perseus. NGC 1333 is a stellar nursery that has also been found to harbor an unusually high number of brown dwarfs, some of them at the very low end of the mass range for such objects – in other words, not much heavier than Jupiter.

4
NASA Webb Near Infrared Imager NIRCam

5
CSA Webb Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS)

3
Dusty NGC 1333 is seen as a reflection nebula in visible light images, sporting bluish hues characteristic of starlight reflected by dust. But at longer infrared wavelengths, the interstellar dust itself glows – shown in red in this false-color Spitzer Space Telescope image. The penetrating infrared view also shows youthful stars that would otherwise still be obscured by the dusty clouds which formed them. Notably, greenish streaks and splotches that seem to litter the region trace the glow of cosmic jets blasting away from emerging young stellar objects as the jets plow into the cold cloud material. In all, the chaotic scene likely resembles one in which our own Sun formed over 4.5 billion years ago. NGC 1333 is a mere 1,000 light-years distant in the constellation Perseus.

“In more than a decade of searching, our team has found it is very difficult to locate brown dwarfs that are less than five Jupiter-masses – the mass where star and planet formation overlap. That is a job for the Webb telescope,” Scholz says. “It has been a long wait for Webb, but we are very excited to get an opportunity to break new ground and potentially discover an entirely new type of planets, unbound, roaming the Galaxy like stars.”

Both of the projects led by Scholz and Artigau are making use of Guaranteed Time Observations (GTOs), observing time on the telescope that is granted to astronomers who have worked for years to prepare Webb’s scientific operations.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the scientific complement to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, will be the premier space observatory of the next decade. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

For more information about the Webb telescope, visit http://www.nasa.gov/webb or http://www.webbtelescope.org

See the full article here .

Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

STEM Icon

Stem Education Coalition

The James Webb Space Telescope will be a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror. Launch is planned for later in the decade.

Webb telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.

Webb telescope was formerly known as the “Next Generation Space Telescope” (NGST); it was renamed in Sept. 2002 after a former NASA administrator, James Webb.

Webb is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is managing the development effort. The main industrial partner is Northrop Grumman; the Space Telescope Science Institute will operate Webb after launch.

Several innovative technologies have been developed for Webb. These include a folding, segmented primary mirror, adjusted to shape after launch; ultra-lightweight beryllium optics; detectors able to record extremely weak signals, microshutters that enable programmable object selection for the spectrograph; and a cryocooler for cooling the mid-IR detectors to 7K.

There will be four science instruments on Webb: the Near InfraRed Camera (NIRCam), the Near InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRspec), the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), and the Fine Guidance Sensor/ Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS-NIRISS). Webb’s instruments will be designed to work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range. It will be sensitive to light from 0.6 to 28 micrometers in wavelength.
Webb has four main science themes: The End of the Dark Ages: First Light and Reionization, The Assembly of Galaxies, The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems, and Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life.

Launch is scheduled for later in the decade on an Ariane 5 rocket. The launch will be from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch complex at European Spaceport located near Kourou, French Guiana. Webb will be located at the second Lagrange point, about a million miles from the Earth.

NASA image

ESA50 Logo large

Canadian Space Agency