James Webb Space Telescope will watch smashing worlds in high definition

This artist’s view shows a planet orbiting the young star Beta Pictoris.
This artist’s view shows a planet orbiting the young star Beta Pictoris. (Image credit: ESO L. Calçada/N. Risinger)

Researchers are looking forward to a glimpse of colliding worlds in action from NASA's cutting-edge space observatory.

After the James Webb Space Telescope finishes its commissioning period and releases its first operational images on July 12, the observatory will dive into science in earnest. And one of the telescope's first-year investigations will include a close-up view of the strange neighborhood of Beta Pictoris.

The young star, just 63 light years away from us, is surrounded by a dusty disc full of debris left over from its formation. It's a crowded space, hosting "at least two planets [and] a jumble of smaller, rocky bodies," researchers said in a 2021 press release about the investigation.

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While the research has numerous directions, one key aspect is watching a young planetary system evolving as planetesimals (the predecessors to planets) collide. Because Beta Pictoris is wreathed in dust, researchers will be using Webb's infrared light to peer through the debris and see what is happening in high definition.

Webb will have decades of past work to draw upon, including ground-based observatories and space observations from the Hubble Space Telescope. We know from such studies that Beta Pictoris hosts at least two gigantic planets, both much more massive than Jupiter. Researchers also glimpsed the first known exocomets, or comets beyond our solar system, whirling in the debris cloud.

But it's the debris disk that is exciting researchers, as Webb will be able to look through the dust to potentially see the effects of collisions between asteroids, comets, planetesimals and other small bodies. Even pebbles and boulders in the outer debris disc, the press release stated, could generate enough dust for Webb to see.

Two investigations are planned in Webb's first set of observations, known as Cycle 1. A team led by Chris Stark, a postdoctoral program fellow at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, will use a coronagraph (star-blocking device) to observe the debris disc in more detail. 

Artist’s conception of the view towards the young star Beta Pictoris from the outer edge of its disk. This disk of dust and gas orbiting the star is produced by collisions between and evaporation of asteroids and comets. The star is about 63 light-years from Earth.  (Image credit: NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook)

The research aims to answer key questions about how similar this system is to the Milky Way. For example, Stark's team hopes to trace how dust and water ice in the outer belt of the debris cloud migrates in to the inner reaches. 

Dust will also be studied as a pathfinder to finding comets and asteroids embedded in the thick cloud. Researchers will gain information about the spectrum, or pattern of elements found in the dust, by focusing on how warm dust scatters or re-emits light. Such work will also be key to comparing Beta Pictoris to our solar system, by examining their relative abundance of gases and minerals.

The Stark team is creating models of Beta Pictoris in research led by Isabel Rebollido, a postdoctoral researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that manages the scheduling of Webb science investigations.

Already the team has a model based on a range of data from past missions, spanning wavelengths including radio, near-infrared, far-infrared, and visible light. Once Webb captures its own investigations, the team will add its infrared work to the old model — while building a second model hosting only Webb's data.

The debris disk of Beta Pictoris was imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope in visible light. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, Daniel Apai (University of Arizona), Glenn Schneider (University of Arizona))

The team is curious as to whether the light Webb observes is symmetrical, or hosts "bumps" in the data that would show dust accumulating in certain regions of Beta Pictoris. 

"Webb is far more sensitive than any other space telescope, and gives us a chance to look for this evidence, as well as water vapor where we know there’s gas," Rebollido added in the same press release.

A second investigation, led by STScI associate astronomer Christine Chen, will study the dust left behind by colliding planetesimals. Chen's team is interested in learning what the smallest dust grains look like (whether fluffy, or compact), along with what the composition of these grains might be.

"Dust grains are 'fingerprints' of planetesimals we can't see directly, and [grains] can tell us about what these planetesimals are made of and how they formed," Chen said in the press release.

For example, researchers will seek to learn whether the planetesimals are rich in ice, like comets, or if the dust is more indicative of rocky worlds. They also will investigate a carbon monoxide cloud at the disc's edge that is oddly asymmetric.

"One theory is that collisions released dust and gas from larger, icy bodies to form this cloud. Webb's spectra will help them build scenarios that explain its origin," the STScI press release said of the research.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace