How the Webb Area Telescope May Finally Assist Shield Earth

Webb Space Telescope Orientation

Webb Area Telescope adjusting orientation. Credit score: NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Middle

UC Riverside astrophysicist explains the science.

The James Webb Area Telescope, essentially the most advanced and costly area laboratory ever created, is lower than two weeks away from its final vacation spot 1,000,000 miles from Earth. As soon as it arrives, it can ship details about elements of area and time by no means seen earlier than. It’s going to additionally ship beforehand unattainable details about elements of our personal photo voltaic system. 

UC Riverside astrophysicist Stephen Kane’s group might be utilizing the telescope to search for planets like Venus in different elements of the galaxy. Along with work with the Webb mission, Kane can also be becoming a member of NASA on missions to Venus anticipated to launch after 2028. Right here, he breaks down some distinctive features of the Webb, explains how the separate Venus tasks intersect, and the way each may profit Earth. 

Stephen Kane

UC Riverside astrophysicist Stephen Kane. Credit score: Stan Lim/UCR

Q:  The Webb telescope value $10 billion. What contributed to the associated fee, and what makes it totally different from different telescopes?

A: Webb is commonly described as a successor to NASA’s Hubble Area Telescope, which is remarkably nonetheless going sturdy. It was launched within the early 90s and is effectively previous its expiration date — it was by no means supposed to final this lengthy. Its major mirror is slightly below 8 toes in diameter. The Webb’s mirror is greater than 21 toes throughout. It’s manner larger. However there are a couple of different essential variations. 

Hubble orbits the Earth, and there’s a bonus to that. We will and have accessed it to repair it when one thing goes unsuitable. However the drawback is that Earth will get in the way in which of its observations and might restrict among the science it may well do. In distinction, Webb is headed to the Lagrange level, a location in area the place Earth and the solar’s gravity cancel out, so it may well stay in a steady orbit. That location is about 1,000,000 miles from Earth. From there, because it orbits the solar, it may well level wherever in area with out having Earth get in the way in which. 

As well as, the Hubble primarily operates at optical wavelengths, ones we are able to see with the human eye. Webb is primarily designed to “see” infrared mild with excessive sensitivity. This may assist us detect numerous issues, together with stars and planets which can be simply forming and aren’t but in any other case seen.  

Q: How will you be utilizing Webb’s expertise that can assist you perceive extra about Venus? Additionally, why are you finding out Venus?

A: Venus might be described as a runaway greenhouse hellscape. It has floor temperatures of as much as 800 levels Fahrenheit, no water, and floats in a nest of sulfuric acid clouds. In my work, I’m attempting to reply two questions: 1) how did Venus get to be the way in which it’s? and a couple of) how generally does this hellish state happen elsewhere?

Our separate mission to Venus is about answering the previous query. That’s about finding out Venus itself. Our work with the Webb is concerning the latter — are there different Venuses? We’ll be utilizing Webb to measure the atmospheres of exoplanets — planets round stars apart from our solar — and attempting to find out whether or not they’re extra like Earth or Venus. Particularly, Webb will assist us search for carbon dioxide and different gases that might point out runaway greenhouse states. 

We’re going to do these measurements on planets the place we already understand how lengthy it takes them to orbit their stars, how shut they’re to their stars, their measurement and their mass. However we don’t know a lot about their atmospheres, or whether or not they’re in Venus-like states. Webb can inform us this. And it’ll assist us see whether or not the destiny of Venus is a standard destiny or not. 

Q: Greenhouse gases are inflicting devastating modifications to the local weather right here on Earth. Can Venus science assist resolve this planet’s issues?

A: No matter occurred to Venus was by non-human processes, however the impact may be very related. Venus is a preview into Earth’s future. Understanding how runaway greenhouse gases work can inform us stop that future. 

We all know that local weather change is actual, that temperatures are rising. However there’s lots of variability in predictions 50 or 100 years out as a result of there are limits to how a lot we find out about how planetary processes affect one another. 

Volcanic outgassing, ocean currents, air currents — there are such a lot of items in a posh puzzle, and we’re attempting to find out our destiny primarily based solely on knowledge from Earth. We’d like one other supply of knowledge the place issues have already gone unsuitable, and that’s Venus. 

It’s attainable Venus might all the time have been in its present state, however we don’t assume so. We consider it might have had water previously as a result of it rotates slowly, which might permit clouds to type and funky the floor sufficient to get water. That’s one purpose we’re going again, to see the geology on the floor and get clues about its origins. 

I usually clarify the connection between Venus and Earth this fashion: it’s like we dwell in a pleasant city. There’s a close-by city that in some unspecified time in the future burned to the bottom, and we don’t know why. If it seems like that city was precisely the identical as ours, we are able to’t ignore that. There’s a actually essential message in there about how we are able to higher handle the place we dwell.  

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