The James Webb Space Telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) has four observing modes. On Aug. 24, after measuring increased friction in one of the grating wheels used in MIRI’s medium resolution spectrometry (MRS) mode, the Webb team paused science observations using this specific mode. Since then, a team of experts has carried out an in-depth investigation that has reviewed instrument design as well as historical and postlaunch data.
The team concluded the issue is likely caused by increased contact forces between sub-components of the wheel central bearing assembly under certain conditions. Based on this, the team developed and vetted a plan for how to use the affected mechanism during science operations.
An engineering test was executed Wednesday, Nov. 2, that successfully demonstrated predictions for wheel friction. Webb will resume MIRI MRS science observations by Saturday, Nov. 12, starting with a unique opportunity to observe Saturn’s polar regions, just before they become unobservable by Webb for the next 20 years. The team will schedule additional MRS science observations, initially at a limited cadence, following a plan to keep the affected wheel in balance, monitor wheel health, and prepare MIRI MRS for a return to full science operations.
NASA will share a new image or spectrum from the James Webb Space Telescope at least every other week on the mission’s blog. This week, check the blog on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 11 a.m. EST for a new image highlighting a nearby dwarf galaxy.
In the meantime, learn more about what to expect as Webb observations make their way from raw data to published, peer-reviewed science.
Editor’s Note: This post highlights data from Webb science in progress, which has not yet been through the peer-review process.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured its first images and spectra of Mars Sept. 5. The telescope, an international collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency), provides a unique perspective with its infrared sensitivity on our neighboring planet, complementing data being collected by orbiters, rovers, and other telescopes.
Webb’s unique observation post nearly a million miles away at the Sun-Earth Lagrange point 2 (L2) provides a view of Mars’ observable disk (the portion of the sunlit side that is facing the telescope). As a result, Webb can capture images and spectra with the spectral resolution needed to study short-term phenomena like dust storms, weather patterns, seasonal changes, and, in a single observation, processes that occur at different times (daytime, sunset, and nighttime) of a Martian day.
Because it is so close, the Red Planet is one of the brightest objects in the night sky in terms of both visible light (which human eyes can see) and the infrared light that Webb is designed to detect. This poses special challenges to the observatory, which was built to detect the extremely faint light of the most distant galaxies in the universe. Webb’s instruments are so sensitive that without special observing techniques, the bright infrared light from Mars is blinding, causing a phenomenon known as “detector saturation.” Astronomers adjusted for Mars’ extreme brightness by using very short exposures, measuring only some of the light that hit the detectors, and applying special data analysis techniques.
Webb’s first images of Mars, captured by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), show a region of the planet’s eastern hemisphere at two different wavelengths, or colors of infrared light. This image shows a surface reference map from NASA and the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on the left, with the two Webb NIRCam instrument field of views overlaid. The near-infrared images from Webb are on shown on the right.
The NIRCam shorter-wavelength (2.1 microns) image [top right] is dominated by reflected sunlight, and thus reveals surface details similar to those apparent in visible-light images [left]. The rings of the Huygens Crater, the dark volcanic rock of Syrtis Major, and brightening in the Hellas Basin are all apparent in this image.
The NIRCam longer-wavelength (4.3 microns) image [lower right] shows thermal emission – light given off by the planet as it loses heat. The brightness of 4.3-micron light is related to the temperature of the surface and the atmosphere. The brightest region on the planet is where the Sun is nearly overhead, because it is generally warmest. The brightness decreases toward the polar regions, which receive less sunlight, and less light is emitted from the cooler northern hemisphere, which is experiencing winter at this time of year.
However, temperature is not the only factor affecting the amount of 4.3-micron light reaching Webb with this filter. As light emitted by the planet passes through Mars’ atmosphere, some gets absorbed by carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules. The Hellas Basin – which is the largest well-preserved impact structure on Mars, spanning more than 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) – appears darker than the surroundings because of this effect.
“This is actually not a thermal effect at Hellas,” explained the principal investigator, Geronimo Villanueva of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who designed these Webb observations. “The Hellas Basin is a lower altitude, and thus experiences higher air pressure. That higher pressure leads to a suppression of the thermal emission at this particular wavelength range [4.1-4.4 microns] due to an effect called pressure broadening. It will be very interesting to tease apart these competing effects in these data.”
Villanueva and his team also released Webb’s first near-infrared spectrum of Mars, demonstrating Webb’s power to study the Red Planet with spectroscopy.
Whereas the images show differences in brightness integrated over a large number of wavelengths from place to place across the planet at a particular day and time, the spectrum shows the subtle variations in brightness between hundreds of different wavelengths representative of the planet as a whole. Astronomers will analyze the features of the spectrum to gather additional information about the surface and atmosphere of the planet.
This infrared spectrum was obtained by combining measurements from all six of the high-resolution spectroscopy modes of Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec). Preliminary analysis of the spectrum shows a rich set of spectral features that contain information about dust, icy clouds, what kind of rocks are on the planet’s surface, and the composition of the atmosphere. The spectral signatures – including deep valleys known as absorption features – of water, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide are easily detected with Webb. The researchers have been analyzing the spectral data from these observations and are preparing a paper they will submit to a scientific journal for peer review and publication.
In the future, the Mars team will be using this imaging and spectroscopic data to explore regional differences across the planet, and to search for trace gases in the atmosphere, including methane and hydrogen chloride.
Editor’s Note: This post highlights images from Webb science in progress, which has not yet been through the peer-review process.
For the first time, astronomers have used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to take a direct image of a planet outside our solar system. The exoplanet is a gas giant, meaning it has no rocky surface and could not be habitable.
The image, as seen through four different light filters, shows how Webb’s powerful infrared gaze can easily capture worlds beyond our solar system, pointing the way to future observations that will reveal more information than ever before about exoplanets.
“This is a transformative moment, not only for Webb but also for astronomy generally,” said Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, who led these observations with a large international collaboration. Webb is an international mission led by NASA in collaboration with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).
The exoplanet in Webb’s image, called HIP 65426 b, is about six to 12 times the mass of Jupiter, and these observations could help narrow that down even further. It is young as planets go — about 15 to 20 million years old, compared to our 4.5-billion-year-old Earth.
Astronomers discovered the planet in 2017 using the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and took images of it using short infrared wavelengths of light. Webb’s view, at longer infrared wavelengths, reveals new details that ground-based telescopes would not be able to detect because of the intrinsic infrared glow of Earth’s atmosphere.
Researchers have been analyzing the data from these observations and are preparing a paper they will submit to journals for peer review. But Webb’s first capture of an exoplanet already hints at future possibilities for studying distant worlds.
Since HIP 65426 b is about 100 times farther from its host star than Earth is from the Sun, it is sufficiently distant from the star that Webb can easily separate the planet from the star in the image.
Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) are both equipped with coronagraphs, which are sets of tiny masks that block out starlight, enabling Webb to take direct images of certain exoplanets like this one. NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, slated to launch later this decade, will demonstrate an even more advanced coronagraph.
“It was really impressive how well the Webb coronagraphs worked to suppress the light of the host star,” Hinkley said.
Taking direct images of exoplanets is challenging because stars are so much brighter than planets. The HIP 65426 b planet is more than 10,000 times fainter than its host star in the near-infrared, and a few thousand times fainter in the mid-infrared.
In each filter image, the planet appears as a slightly differently shaped blob of light. That is because of the particulars of Webb’s optical system and how it translates light through the different optics.
“Obtaining this image felt like digging for space treasure,” said Aarynn Carter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the analysis of the images. “At first all I could see was light from the star, but with careful image processing I was able to remove that light and uncover the planet.”
While this is not the first direct image of an exoplanet taken from space – the Hubble Space Telescope has captured direct exoplanet images previously – HIP 65426 b points the way forward for Webb’s exoplanet exploration.
“I think what’s most exciting is that we’ve only just begun,” Carter said. “There are many more images of exoplanets to come that will shape our overall understanding of their physics, chemistry, and formation. We may even discover previously unknown planets, too.”
With giant storms, powerful winds, auroras, and extreme temperature and pressure conditions, Jupiter has a lot going on. Now, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured new images of the planet. Webb’s Jupiter observations will give scientists even more clues to Jupiter’s inner life.
“We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest,” said planetary astronomer Imke de Pater, professor emerita of the University of California, Berkeley. De Pater led the observations of Jupiter with Thierry Fouchet, a professor at the Paris Observatory, as part of an international collaboration for Webb’s Early Release Science program. Webb itself is an international mission led by NASA with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency). “It’s really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter together with its rings, tiny satellites, and even galaxies in one image,” she said.
The two images come from the observatory’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which has three specialized infrared filters that showcase details of the planet. Since infrared light is invisible to the human eye, the light has been mapped onto the visible spectrum. Generally, the longest wavelengths appear redder and the shortest wavelengths are shown as more blue. Scientists collaborated with citizen scientist Judy Schmidt to translate the Webb data into images.
In the standalone view of Jupiter, created from a composite of several images from Webb, auroras extend to high altitudes above both the northern and southern poles of Jupiter. The auroras shine in a filter that is mapped to redder colors, which also highlights light reflected from lower clouds and upper hazes. A different filter, mapped to yellows and greens, shows hazes swirling around the northern and southern poles. A third filter, mapped to blues, showcases light that is reflected from a deeper main cloud.
The Great Red Spot, a famous storm so big it could swallow Earth, appears white in these views, as do other clouds, because they are reflecting a lot of sunlight.
“The brightness here indicates high altitude – so the Great Red Spot has high-altitude hazes, as does the equatorial region,” said Heidi Hammel, Webb interdisciplinary scientist for solar system observations and vice president for science at AURA. “The numerous bright white ‘spots’ and ‘streaks’ are likely very high-altitude cloud tops of condensed convective storms.” By contrast, dark ribbons north of the equatorial region have little cloud cover.
In a wide-field view, Webb sees Jupiter with its faint rings, which are a million times fainter than the planet, and two tiny moons called Amalthea and Adrastea. The fuzzy spots in the lower background are likely galaxies “photobombing” this Jovian view.
“This one image sums up the science of our Jupiter system program, which studies the dynamics and chemistry of Jupiter itself, its rings, and its satellite system,” Fouchet said. Researchers have already begun analyzing Webb data to get new science results about our solar system’s largest planet.
Data from telescopes like Webb doesn’t arrive on Earth neatly packaged. Instead, it contains information about the brightness of the light on Webb’s detectors. This information arrives at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), Webb’s mission and science operations center, as raw data. STScI processes the data into calibrated files for scientific analysis and delivers it to the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes for dissemination. Scientists then translate that information into images like these during the course of their research (here’s a podcast about that). While a team at STScI formally processes Webb images for official release, non-professional astronomers known as citizen scientists often dive into the public data archive to retrieve and process images, too.
Judy Schmidt of Modesto California, a longtime image processor in the citizen science community, processed these new views of Jupiter. For the image that includes the tiny satellites, she collaborated with Ricardo Hueso, a co-investigator on these observations, who studies planetary atmospheres at the University of the Basque Country in Spain.
Schmidt has no formal educational background in astronomy. But 10 years ago, an ESA contest sparked her insatiable passion for image processing. The “Hubble’s Hidden Treasures” competition invited the public to find new gems in Hubble data. Out of nearly 3,000 submissions, Schmidt took home third place for an image of a newborn star.
Since the ESA contest, she has been working on Hubble and other telescope data as a hobby. “Something about it just stuck with me, and I can’t stop,” she said. “I could spend hours and hours every day.”
Her love of astronomy images led her to process images of nebulae, globular clusters, stellar nurseries, and more spectacular cosmic objects. Her guiding philosophy is: “I try to get it to look natural, even if it’s not anything close to what your eye can see.”These images have caught the attention of professional scientists, including Hammel, who previously collaborated with Schmidt on refining Hubble images of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s Jupiter impact.
Jupiter is actually harder to work with than more distant cosmic wonders, Schmidt says, because of how fast it rotates. Combining a stack of images into one view can be challenging when Jupiter’s distinctive features have rotated during the time that the images were taken and are no longer aligned. Sometimes she has to digitally make adjustments to stack the images in a way that makes sense.
Webb will deliver observations about every phase of cosmic history, but if Schmidt had to pick one thing to be excited about, it would be more Webb views of star-forming regions. In particular, she is fascinated by young stars that produce powerful jets in small nebula patches called Herbig–Haro objects. “I’m really looking forward to seeing these weird and wonderful baby stars blowing holes into nebulas,” she said.
On the heels of Tuesday’s release of the first images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, data from the telescope’s commissioning period is now being released on the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes. The data includes images of Jupiter and images and spectra of several asteroids, captured to test the telescope’s instruments before science operations officially began July 12. The data demonstrates Webb’s ability to track solar system targets and produce images and spectra with unprecedented detail.
Fans of Jupiter will recognize some familiar features of our solar system’s enormous planet in these images seen through Webb’s infrared gaze. A view from the NIRCam instrument’s short-wavelength filter shows distinct bands that encircle the planet as well as the Great Red Spot, a storm big enough to swallow the Earth. The iconic spot appears white in this image because of the way Webb’s infrared image was processed.
“Combined with the deep field images released the other day, these images of Jupiter demonstrate the full grasp of what Webb can observe, from the faintest, most distant observable galaxies to planets in our own cosmic backyard that you can see with the naked eye from your actual backyard,” said Bryan Holler, a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who helped plan these observations.
Clearly visible at left is Europa, a moon with a probable ocean below its thick icy crust, and the target of NASA’s forthcoming Europa Clipper mission. What’s more, Europa’s shadow can be seen to the left of the Great Red Spot. Other visible moons in these images include Thebe and Metis.
“I couldn’t believe that we saw everything so clearly, and how bright they were,” said Stefanie Milam, Webb’s deputy project scientist for planetary science based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s really exciting to think of the capability and opportunity that we have for observing these kinds of objects in our solar system.”
Scientists were especially eager to see these images because they are proof that Webb can observe the satellites and rings near bright solar system objects such as Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Scientists will use Webb to explore the tantalizing question of whether we can see plumes of material spewing out of moons like Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Webb may be able to see the signatures of plumes depositing material on the surface on Europa. “I think that’s just one of the coolest things that we’ll be able to do with this telescope in the solar system,” Milam said.
Additionally, Webb easily captured some of Jupiter’s rings, which especially stand out in the NIRcam long-wavelength filter image. That the rings showed up in one of Webb’s first solar system images is “absolutely astonishing and amazing,” Milam said.
“The Jupiter images in the narrow-band filters were designed to provide nice images of the entire disk of the planet, but the wealth of additional information about very faint objects (Metis, Thebe, the main ring, hazes) in those images with approximately one-minute exposures was absolutely a very pleasant surprise,” said John Stansberry, observatory scientist and NIRCam commissioning lead at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Webb also obtained these images of Jupiter and Europa moving across the telescope’s field of view in three separate observations. This test demonstrated the ability of the observatory to find and track guide stars in the vicinity of bright Jupiter.
But just how fast can an object move and still be tracked by Webb? This was an important question for scientists who study asteroids and comets. During commissioning, Webb used an asteroid called 6481 Tenzing, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, to start the moving-target tracking “speed limit” tests.
Webb was designed with the requirement to track objects that move as fast as Mars, which has a maximum speed of 30 milliarcseconds per second. During commissioning, the Webb team conducted observations of various asteroids, which all appeared as a dot because they were all small. The team proved that Webb will still get valuable data with all of the science instruments for objects moving up to 67 milliarcseconds per second, which is more than twice the expected baseline – similar to photographing a turtle crawling when you’re standing a mile away. “Everything worked brilliantly,” Milam said.
Yesterday, NASA and its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency), released the full set of the first full-color images and spectroscopic data from the James Webb Space Telescope.
The images, which uncover a collection of cosmic features elusive until now, are available at: nasa.gov/webbfirstimages.
Three of the four science instruments on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have completed their commissioning activities and are ready for science.
Each of Webb’s instruments has multiple modes of operation, which need to be tested, calibrated, and ultimately verified before they can begin to conduct science. The latest instrument to complete this process, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph, or NIRSpec, has four key modes the team officially confirmed as ready to go.
“We made it: NIRSpec is ready for science! This is an amazing moment, the result of the hard work of so many JWST and NIRSpec people and teams over more than two decades. I am just so proud of everyone,” said Pierre Ferruit, Webb project scientist with ESA (European Space Agency) and principal investigator for NIRSpec. “Now is time for science, and I am eager to see the first scientific results coming from NIRSpec observations. I have no doubt they will be fantastic. Big thanks to all who made this possible across the years – great job!”
The final mode verified for NIRSpec was the multi-object spectroscopy mode, a key capability that allows Webb to capture spectra, or rainbows of infrared light, from hundreds of different cosmic targets at once. In multi-object spectroscopy mode, NIRSpec can individually open and close about 250,000 small shutters, all just the width of a human hair, to view some portions of the sky while blocking others. By controlling this “microshutter array,” Webb can observe multiple specific targets while reducing interference from others.
The confirmation of NIRSpec’s multi-object spectroscopy mode marks the first time this capability has been verified for use from space. It will allow NIRSpec to characterize everything from the faintest objects in the universe to the formation of galaxies and star clusters.
NIRSpec was built for ESA by a consortium of European companies led by Airbus Defence and Space, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, providing its detector and microshutter subsystems.
Out of 17 total instrument modes across Webb’s four instruments, only one mode remains to be verified, for the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). When the team confirms this remaining mode, the months-long process of preparing Webb for science will formally be complete.
The Webb team has now approved 10 out of 17 science instrument modes; since last week we added (14) MIRI imaging, (2) NIRCam wide-field slitless spectroscopy, and our final NIRISS mode, (10) single-object slitless spectroscopy. As we ramp down the final commissioning activities, some openings in the schedule have appeared. The team has started to take some of the first science data, getting it ready to release starting July 12, 2022, which will mark the official end of commissioning Webb and the start of routine science operations.
This week we asked Tracy Beck, Tony Keyes, and Charles Proffitt, all NIRSpec instrument scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), to tell us about how Webb gets the targets lined up for observation with the NIRSpec instrument.
“The Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) is the instrument on the Webb telescope that observes spectra of astrophysical and planetary objects at near infrared wavelengths. The NIRSpec Grating Wheel Assembly (GWA) uses diffraction gratings or a prism to separate the wavelengths of incoming light into a spectrum. Study of the intensity or brightness of light across the wavelengths can provide key diagnostic information about the nature of various objects across the universe – from extrasolar planets around distant stars, to faint galaxies at the edge of the universe, and objects in our own solar system. NIRSpec will observe them all.
“The WATA process takes an image of a single astrophysical target through the wide ‘S1600A1’ fixed slit to determine its position on the sky as seen through the instrument. The software on-board the Webb telescope autonomously calculates an offset to move the telescope and accurately position either this target or another nearby target at the optimal location in NIRSpec to spread the light into a spectrum. During instrument commissioning, the excellent performance of WATA has been demonstrated on the sky for all four of the NIRSpec observing modes: integral field unit imaging spectroscopy, fixed slit spectroscopy, bright object time series, and multi-object spectroscopy.
“NIRSpec includes the multi-object spectroscopy (MOS) mode, where spectra of dozens to hundreds of science targets will be observed at one time. This requires specialized apertures that can be configured by opening and closing specific tiny doorways (microshutters) of the 250,000 total that are arranged in a rectangular grid in the MSA, allowing individual targets to be observed with little contamination from nearby objects or background light.
“During MSATA, a set of target acquisition reference stars are imaged through open microshutters. The stellar positions are calculated autonomously by Webb’s on-board software and used to correct the initial spacecraft pointing and position angle (rotation). To allow accurate correction of the observed spectra for the centering of each source in its shutter, this process must place the MOS science targets across the full span of the NIRSpec field of view with an accuracy of 1/10th of a NIRSpec shutter width – or just 20 milli-arcseconds on the sky (the approximate size of a bumblebee, 1.5 cm, viewed from 150 km away!).
“The recent confirmation of NIRSpec target acquisition and additional work on the four science modes primes the NIRSpec team for our last activities of commissioning. We cannot wait to see the first NIRSpec science observations coming this summer!
“NIRSpec was built for the European Space Agency (ESA) by a consortium of European companies led by Airbus Defence and Space (ADS) with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center providing its detector and microshutter subsystems.”
–Tracy Beck, AURA Observatory and Webb NIRSpec Instrument Scientist, STScI; Tony Keyes AURA Scientist and Webb NIRSpec Instrument Scientist, STScI; and Charles Proffitt, AURA Observatory and Webb NIRSpec Instrument Scientist, STScI
Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA Goddard
Stefanie Milam, Webb deputy project scientist for planetary science, NASA Goddard
The Webb team continues to work on commissioning the science instruments, the final step before starting science operations in the summer. We recently saw the beautiful image of the black hole in the center of our Milky Way galaxy, taken by the Event Horizon Telescope. One of the puzzles of modern astronomy is how every large galaxy came to have a giant central black hole, and how some of these black holes are surprisingly large even at very early times. We asked Roberto Maiolino, a member of the Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec) instrument science team, to tell us how Webb will help to answer some of these questions.
“One of the most exciting areas of discovery that Webb is about to open is the search for primeval black holes in the early universe. These are the seeds of the much more massive black holes that astronomers have found in galactic nuclei. Most (probably all) galaxies host black holes at their centers, with masses ranging from millions to billions of times the mass of our Sun. These supermassive black holes have grown to be so large both by gobbling matter around them and also through the merging of smaller black holes.
“An intriguing recent finding has been the discovery of hyper-massive black holes, with masses of several billion solar masses, already in place when the universe was only about 700 million years old, a small fraction of its current age of 13.8 billion years. This is a puzzling result, as at such early epochs there is not enough time to grow such hyper-massive black holes, according to standard theories. Some scenarios have been proposed to solve this conundrum. One possibility is that black holes, resulting from the death of the very first generation of stars in the early universe, have accreted material at exceptionally high rates. Another scenario is that primeval, pristine gas clouds, not yet enriched by chemical elements heavier than helium, could directly collapse to form a black hole with a mass of a few hundred thousand solar masses, and subsequently accrete matter to evolve into the hyper-massive black holes observed at later epochs. Finally, dense, nuclear star clusters at the centers of baby galaxies may have produced intermediate mass black hole seeds, via stellar collisions or merging of stellar-mass black holes, and then become much more massive via accretion.
“Webb is about to open a completely new discovery space in this area. It is possible that the first black hole seeds originally formed in the ‘baby universe,’ within just a few million years after the big bang. Webb is the perfect ‘time machine’ to learn about these primeval objects. Its exceptional sensitivity makes Webb capable of detecting extremely distant galaxies, and because of the time required for the light emitted by the galaxies to travel to us, we will see them as they were in the remote past.
“Webb’s NIRSpec instrument is particularly well suited to identify primeval black hole seeds. My colleagues in the NIRSpec Instrument Science Team and I will be searching for their signatures during ‘active’ phases, when they are voraciously gobbling matter and growing rapidly. In these phases the material surrounding them becomes extremely hot and luminous and ionizes the atoms in their surroundings and in their host galaxies. NIRSpec will disperse the light from these systems into spectra, or ‘rainbows.’ The rainbow of active black hole seeds will be characterised by specific ‘fingerprints,’ features of highly ionized atoms. NIRSpec will also measure the velocity of the gas orbiting in the vicinity of these primeval black holes. Smaller black holes will be characterized by lower orbital velocities. Black hole seeds formed in pristine clouds will be identified by the absence of features associated with any element heavier than helium.
“I look forward to using Webb’s unprecedented capabilities to search for these black hole progenitors, with the ultimate goal of understanding their nature and origin. The early universe and the realm of black holes seeds is a completely uncharted territory that my colleagues and I are very excited to explore with Webb.”
— Roberto Maiolino, professor of experimental astrophysics and director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge
— Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
— Stefanie Milam, Webb deputy project scientist for planetary science, NASA Goddard