These observations could lay groundwork for future exoplanet exploration with Webb, including which worlds could support life. Webb’s infrared instruments will be capable of detecting the types of molecules in the atmospheres of exoplanets by seeing which elements are absorbing light as the planet passes in front of its star, a scientific technique known as transit spectroscopy.
“The brown dwarf SIMP0136 has the same temperature as various planets that will be observed in transit spectroscopy with Webb, and clouds are known to affect this type of measurement; our observations will help us better understand cloud decks in brown dwarfs and planet atmospheres in general,” Artigau says.
The search for low-mass, isolated brown dwarfs was one of the early science goals put forward for the Webb telescope in the 1990s, says astronomer Aleks Scholz of the University of St. Andrews. Brown dwarfs have a lower mass than stars and do not “shine” but merely emit the dim afterglow of their birth, and so they are best seen in infrared light, which is why Webb will be such a valuable tool in this research.
Scholz, who also leads the Substellar Objects in Nearby Young Clusters (SONYC) project, will use Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) to study NGC 1333 in the constellation of Perseus. NGC 1333 is a stellar nursery that has also been found to harbor an unusually high number of brown dwarfs, some of them at the very low end of the mass range for such objects – in other words, not much heavier than Jupiter.
"In more than a decade of searching, our team has found it is very difficult to locate brown dwarfs that are less than five Jupiter-masses - the mass where star and planet formation overlap. That is a job for the Webb telescope,” Scholz says. “It has been a long wait for Webb, but we are very excited to get an opportunity to break new ground and potentially discover an entirely new type of planets, unbound, roaming the Galaxy like stars."
Both of the projects led by Scholz and Artigau are making use of Guaranteed Time Observations (GTOs), observing time on the telescope that is granted to astronomers who have worked for years to prepare Webb’s scientific operations
The James Webb Space Telescope, the scientific complement to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, will be the premier space observatory of the next decade. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).
For more information about the Webb telescope, visit www.nasa.gov/webb or www.webbtelescope.org
By Leah Ramsay
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
Editor: Lynn Jenner