The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has accomplished some amazing things during its first year of operations! In addition to taking the most detailed and breathtaking images ever of iconic celestial objects, Webb completed its first deep field campaign, turned its infrared optics on Mars and Jupiter, obtained spectra directly from an exoplanet’s atmosphere, blocked out the light of a star to reveal the debris disk orbiting it, detected its first exoplanet, and spotted some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe – those that existed at Cosmic Dawn.
Well, buckle up! The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) has just announced what Webb will be studying during its second year of operations – aka. Cycle 2! According to a recent STScI statement, approximately 5,000 hours of prime time and 1,215 hours of parallel time were awarded to General Observer (GO) programs. The programs allotted observation time range from studies of the Solar System and exoplanets to the interstellar and intergalactic medium, from supermassive black holes and quasars to the large-scale structure of the Universe.
The proposals granted observation time were selected Cycle 2 Telescope Allocation Committee (TAC), which met in April 2023. The largest proposals (Treasure and Legacy) were reviewed by the Executive Committee (which met virtually from April 17th to 20th) and were awarded more than 75 hours of observation. The smallest proposals were assessed by external reviewers and awarded 15 hours each, while small to medium proposals were reviewed by topical panels and were awarded 35 to 75 hours. The selected programs are an accurate reflection of Webb’s objectives and capabilities.
Here are some examples to give you an idea of what’s in store!
One of the most anticipated aspects of the Webb mission is how it will assist with the transition currently taking place in exoplanet science. Whereas astronomers were largely focused on the discovery process in the past, improved instruments, methods, and analytics are shifting the focus toward characterization. To date, the vast majority of exoplanets have been detected by indirect means, which meant that constraints on their habitability had to be inferred based on their parent star, the distance at which they orbited, and their respective masses.
Thanks to Webb’s superior infrared optics and sensitivity, astronomers look forward to being able to directly image exoplanets and obtain spectra from their atmospheres. In particular, they hope to direct Webb’s mirrors toward nearby M-type (red dwarf) stars and their rocky planets, many of which have been confirmed in recent years. In addition to being the most common stars in the Universe (accounting for 75% to 80%), red dwarfs are also likely to support rocky planets within their habitable zones (HZs).
However, these planets are likely to be tidally locked with their suns, and red dwarfs are prone to flare activity, which raises questions about their long-term ability to retain atmospheres. To address this mystery, Dr. Shubham Kanodia of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and his team were awarded 132.39 hours for their program titled “Red Dwarfs and the Seven Giants.” This study will characterize the atmospheres of giant rocky planets around M-type stars to address one of the JWST’s primary science goals: how atmospheric composition can affect a planet’s formation and evolutionary history.
This will consist of Kanodia and his team using Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec) to observe short-period Jupiter-sized planets around red dwarfs, which pose challenges to current theories about planet formation and represent an extreme regime that is poorly understood. By comparing the atmospheres of seven M-dwarf short-period Jupiters to the gas giants that orbit our Sun, they hope to characterize their atmospheric composition and metallicity and compare them to gas giants that orbit more-massive yellow-white(F-type), Sun-like (G-type), and orange dwarf (K-type) stars.