The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched by NASA in December 2021, has captured its first image of Mars. The telescope, a product of an international collaboration involving the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency along with NASA, complements available information from orbiters, rovers and other telescopes by offering a unique viewpoint on Mars through its infrared sensitivity.
The official NASA Webb Telescope Instagram page has posted a series of images showing the JWST’s first glimpse of Mars. This included a close-up of Mars that revealed surface details such as craters and layers of dust. The telescope also recorded a heat map of the red planet, showing the light the planet emits as it loses heat.
The surface features such as craters and layers of dust are visible on Slide 2 due to the 2.1 micron reflected sunlight. The image shows the rings of Huygens Crater, the dark volcanic rocks of Syrtis Major and the brightening in the Hellas Basin with arrows. As the planet loses heat, it emits light visible in the near-infrared (NIRCam) image captured at a longer wavelength.
The heat map in Slide 3 shows purple and red representing darker, cooler regions like the poles of Mars and the northern hemisphere. Orange and yellow are used to symbolize lighter, warmer areas. Slide 4 shows an image of the Martian atmosphere. Webb’s NIRSpec detector has detected the signatures of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and water. By analyzing this data, scientists hope to learn more about Mars’ surface features, clouds and dust.
The JWST was designed to see extremely distant and faint objects, but since Mars is relatively close and very bright, it’s not the easiest planet to visualize. Scientists studied the red planet using short exposure times to avoid JWST’s instruments being blinded by its intense infrared light. Consequently, only part of the light that reached the JWST’s detectors was measured, and the data was then processed using advanced techniques.
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