James Webb Space Telescope gets satellite sidekick to aid search for habitable planets

satellite with two solar arrays floating above earth in an illustration. the glow of the sun is visible at left
Artist's impression of the MANTIS satellite above Earth. (Image credit: Dana Chafetz)

A deep-space telescope's search for potentially habitable exoplanets will get a stellar boost from a small satellite.

The James Webb Space Telescope's (JWST or Webb) far-reaching exoplanet search will receive some help from a much smaller satellite, which is optimized to look at star activity. 

The $8.5 million cubesat, selected by NASA, is called Monitoring Activity from Nearby Stars with UV Imaging and Spectroscopy, or MANTIS.

The two spacecraft are complementary. Among its many tasks, JWST scrutinizes the atmospheres of rocky planets that may be host to life, such as its recent examination of an exoplanet in the TRAPPIST-1 system. MANTIS, meanwhile, will look at star activity such as flares after its expected launch in 2026. 

Related: James Webb Space Telescope studies mysterious exoplanet with a possible watery past

The MANTIS spacecraft will look at the sky in ultraviolet light, including the most energetic set of wavelengths known as extreme ultraviolet. It will be the first to examine the sky in that range since NASA's Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer that retired in 2001, according to the University of Colorado Boulder.

The theory goes that rocky exoplanets with water on their surface may face extra challenges if they orbit a very active star, given the amount of radiation such planets would be exposed to. MANTIS aims to provide more data to refine that theory, across a year of observations from Earth orbit.

"We're going to be observing stars of all different types, including a range of masses and ages," Briana Indahl, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and principal investigator for the MANTIS mission, said in the statement

"We want to understand how this flux of UV (ultraviolet) light coming from stars affects the atmospheres of planets, and even their habitability."

MANTIS will carry two telescopes into space: one optimized for lower-energy ultraviolet radiation, and a never-before-flown telescope type looking at the extreme ultraviolet range. 

"For a lot of stars, this is going to be the first time we've seen what they look like in extreme ultraviolet," said David Wilson, a university researcher who leads the mission's science team, in the same statement.

MANTIS is adapting from technology on two other university cubesats: an exoplanet mission called the Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE) that launched in 2021, and the Supernova Remnants and Proxies for ReIonization Testbed Experiment (SPRITE) that is scheduled to seek the leftovers of star explosions in 2024.

Once ready for science observing, MANTIS aims to help scientists learn how stellar energy affects the atmospheres of planets in the vicinity, especially for those planets that are close to Earth's size and may be habitable.

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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