(ORDO NEWS) — Just over a week separates us from the day NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope unveils its first images, and while that date will be significant in its own right, it will be followed by months and years of unprecedented scientific data collection.
One of Webb Observatory’s early science programs is a study in which Webb will observe a nearby “stellar cradle” called NGC 1333.
An international team of scientists will image the small, dim objects that inhabit this molecular cloud – mostly brown dwarfs and planets. orphans – which are difficult to observe with less powerful telescopes.
Brown dwarfs are considered “failed stars”. Although their life cycle begins in the same way as true stars, in clouds of collapsing gas and dust, brown dwarfs do not then gain enough mass to initiate nuclear reactions.
Therefore, they are small in size and low luminosity compared to other stars – and this makes them difficult to observe with conventional telescopes.
Brown dwarfs are intermediate between gas giant planets and red dwarfs, the smallest and coldest of the main sequence stars.
“The least massive brown dwarfs identified so far have a mass of no more than 5-10 Jupiter masses,” Alek Scholz, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and lead author of this new study, said in a statement.
We still do not know whether even smaller mass bodies can form in the “stellar cradles”. With Webb, we expect to discover, for the first time, objects in a cluster that are so tiny that they are comparable in mass to Jupiter.”
The team will also study orphan planets, celestial bodies that first formed in a star system and then were pushed into space by gravitational interaction and are now free to move through interstellar space. (True planets are gravitationally bound to their parent stars.)
To observe these small, dark objects, the researchers will use Webb’s onboard instrument called the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, which collects spectroscopic data from dozens of objects at once.
The study is part of the first cycle of the Guaranteed Time Observations program, which will be implemented in Webb’s first year in orbit.
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