Desiree Stover / NASA

Many Cornell faculty are looking forward to utilizing the James Webb Telescope to collect data for their astronomy research.

February 22, 2023

Cornell Professor Utilizes James Webb Telescope to Explore Far Off Giant Planets

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The James Webb Telescope, a telescope which Cornell faculty helped build and develop, collects data from the furthest corners from our solar system, and Cornell faculty hope to use it to catch a glimpse into what lies beyond Earth.   

The James Webb Telescope can analyze both visible and infrared wavelength spectrums. Because the Webb telescope is much more sensitive than other telescopes like the Hubble telescope, it can see fainter objects in space. Many Cornell researchers are excited to see the data the James Webb Telescope can collect on these objects.

Cornell faculty are currently working with the telescope for various reasons, such as research on characterization of exoplanets or observation of gas giants and their stars. One of these faculty members is Prof. Jonathan Lunine, astronomy, a member of the science working group for the James Webb telescope. Lunine has greatly contributed to the development of the telescope using it to continue investigating gas giants and their stars. 

Lunine was part of the expansive team that helped develop the telescope starting in 2003. According to Lunine, developing the telescope required a large team of engineers to build the telescope, the science working group, leads on the telescope’s instruments and the project management team. These worked together to greatly increase the telescope’s sensitivity to collect spectra over a broad range of wavelength of light.

Lunine’s research uses spacecraft data and mathematical modeling to understand the properties of the planets they are observing, including how the planet was formed and whether life could potentially exist there.

“I think there were many times when it just looked like this was an impossible engineering task and they pulled it off and it works tremendously well,” Lunine said. “It meets all the requirements and exceeds them.” 

Because of Lunine’s work with the development of the Webb telescope, he was given guaranteed time observations: He and another colleague were able to have their targets of observation, which are all giant planets, identified before the telescope even launched. 

Lunine is currently working on two main projects with the Webb telescope. The first project is to measure the composition of the atmospheres of “hot Jupiters” and “warm Jupiters” around other stars. This project focuses on gathering data on the composition of these planets, which can range in size from Uranus to Jupiter. 

To do this, they use the telescope to measure the spectrum of these planets, the distribution of light emitted from these planets as a function of wavelength or color. Molecules have their own spectral fingerprints, as there are distinct parts of the spectrum where they absorb radiation. Lunine and his team are mostly focused on determining how much carbon and oxygen are present in these atmospheres to understand how these materials were added to planets over time. 

“But because [these planets] are so far away, they’re many, many light years or dozens of light years away, we can’t send spacecraft there,” Lunine said. “We need to have very, very sensitive telescopes to be able to see the very faint spectra that we can get of these extrasolar planets… that’s why we need the James Webb telescope.” 

The second project observes very distant objects in our solar system known as Kuiper Belt objects. Scientists want to understand the composition of the surface of these objects, as they are remnants of planet formation. Studying the Kuiper Belt Objects can provide a glance into the history of the solar system and give astronomers a chance to see what the building blocks of giant planets may have been like four and half billion years ago. 

“This is kind of the graveyard of the stuff that didn’t make it into the giant planets and has been kind of left behind in orbit around the Sun for billions of years and far enough from the Sun that they remain cold,” Lunine said.

Lunine will be publishing several papers later this year  utilizing the data gathered with the Webb telescope, and he is also looking forward to getting more time on the telescope and exploring more giant planets. 

“This [the James Webb telescope] was really the most remarkable project,” Lunine said. “It was the most challenging, the most daring, the most nerve wracking of the projects [with which I have been involved].”

Correction, Feb. 24, 11:15 a.m.: A previous version of this article misstated that the project to develop the telescope began in 2004. The article has been corrected to accurately reflect that the project began in 2003. The article has also been clarified to add context to Prof. Jonathan Lunine’s contributions to the project.