Monday, May 09, 2022

Comparison: New James Webb Space Telescope vs. Spitzer Space Telescope

Comparison: New James Webb Space Telescope vs. Spitzer Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope is aligned across all four of its science instruments, as seen in a previous engineering image showing the observatory’s full field of view. Now, we take a closer look at that same image, focusing on Webb’s coldest instrument: the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI.

The MIRI test image (at 7.7 microns) shows part of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). This small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way provided a dense star field to test Webb’s performance.

Here, a close-up of the MIRI image is compared to a past image of the same target taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (at 8.0 microns). The retired Spitzer was the first observatory to provide high-resolution images of the near- and mid-infrared Universe. The Spitzer Space Telescope was launched in 2003 and science operations ended in 2020. Webb, by virtue of its significantly larger primary mirror and improved detectors, will allow us to see the infrared sky with improved clarity, enabling even more discoveries. 

For example, Webb’s MIRI image shows the interstellar gas in unprecedented detail. Here, you can see the emission from ‘polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons’—molecules of carbon and hydrogen that play an important role in the thermal balance and chemistry of interstellar gas. When Webb is ready to begin science observations, studies such as these with MIRI will help give astronomers new insights into the birth of stars and protoplanetary systems.

In the meantime, the Webb team has begun the process of setting up and testing Webb’s instruments to begin science observations this summer. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is now experiencing all seasons—from hot to cold—as it undergoes the thermal stability test. Meanwhile, activities are underway for the final phase of commissioning: digging into the details of the science instruments, the heart of Webb. To complete commissioning, we will measure the detailed performance of the science instruments before we start routine science operations in the summer.

Webb is an international partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). MIRI is part of Europe’s contribution to the Webb mission. It is a partnership between Europe and the USA; the main partners are ESA, a consortium of nationally funded European institutes, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech and NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

Release Date: May 9, 2022

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