On September 5, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured its first images and spectra of ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).
Webb’s unique observation post is nearly a million miles away from Earth at the Sun-Earth Lagrange point 2 (L2). It 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 to Earth, 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, because it was built to detect the extremely faint light of the most distant galaxies in the universe. In fact, 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 measuring only some of the light that hit the detectors, using very short exposures, and applying special data analysis techniques.