In the early 1600s, Galileo Galilei used his primitive technology to observe Jupiter.  During this time, he discovered that the planet, named after the king of the Roman gods, had its own satellites which orbited around it, leading to the admission that the Earth was not, in fact, at the center of the universe. 

Now, NASA is using the largest and most advanced space telescope ever built to pick up where Galileo left off.  The James Webb Space Telescope, often shortened to the “Webb telescope,” will be used to observe the rings and moons of Jupiter to give us more insight into this particularly fascinating planet.

NASA’s Webb Telescope

The Webb telescope utilizes far longer wavelengths than any other built in the past, which allows observers to discover more about that which they are exploring.  It uses mid-infrared technology to see into the infrared easily, looking at high redshift objects that are older and farther than anything a telescope has been able to observe leading up to now.

The telescope was finally constructed in 2016, and was intended to be launched in March of 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic delayed these plans.  Now, NASA plans to launch it in October of 2021.

Observing Jupiter

NASA plans to observe Jupiter using the Webb, relying on a team of 40 scientists to study all that they can.  Observations will center around Jupiter’s rings as well as its two moons, Ganymede and Io.  One reason why this has not really been possible until now is the brightness level of Jupiter, which essentially blinds observers to these unique objects.  The Webb, with its unique features, should allow scientists to clearly see the rings and moons without interference for the first time.

Therefore, one can safely say that the goal of the mission is two-fold: to observe these aspects of Jupiter, and to test the limitations of the telescope itself.  If the Webb allows for true observations of Jupiter, then it offers something unique from other telescopes produced by NASA in the past.

The Rings and Moons of Jupiter

Jupiter has its rings because it’s a gaseous planet, being classified as a gas giant.  Studying the rings has been a major challenge in the past because of their small particles which do a poor job reflecting light.  With an overwhelmingly bright planet as the backdrop, seeing them has been basically impossible.  The Webb was specially designed to compensate for this optical issue.

Meanwhile, the moons of Jupiter are equally fascinating, and scientists have been yearning to study them more intensely for some time.  Ganymede is the largest known moon in the Solar System, being even larger than the planet Mercury, and having its own magnetic field, which sets it apart from other moons.  It’s even believed that Ganymede may have its own oceanic body of water, which is something that scientists are very excited to attempt to determine once and for all.

Then, there’s Io, which is volcanically active, with lava lakes found all over the surface.  Scientists plan to use the Webb as an opportunity to learn about why these volcanoes are so active, and how they have affected the moon’s structure and atmosphere over time.

If all goes according to plan, the Webb will enable scientists to answer the abundance of questions they have about these unique features of Jupiter.  Being able to fully grasp the makeup of its rings will help us understand how they were formed, and why they are inherent to this particular type of planet.  Meanwhile, studying Jupiter’s moons will teach us information about their atmospheres and materials, while giving us insight into information about volcanoes which can then be applied to the ones that occur here on Earth.

Summary

The James Webb Space Telescope has been given a lot of hype in recent times, and its delay has frustrated many who have been anticipating the fascinating research it is capable of.  We have to wait another year until we can get those first glimpses into Jupiter’s rings and moons, but given what this telescope seems to be uniquely capable of, we anticipate that it will be fully worth the wait.

  • Oct 27, 2020
  • Category: Blog
  • Comments: 6
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