Limitations of the Webb Space Telescope Shown

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that the tools astronomers use to decode light signals may not be good enough to accurately analyze data from the James Webb Space Telescope. This could hinder the search for exoplanets, for example. This is reported in an article published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

According to the authors of the work, opacity models – the tools that simulate the interaction of light with matter depending on the properties of matter – may need significant readjustment to match the accuracy of Webb data. Researchers predict that the properties of planetary atmospheres predicted by the models, such as their temperature, pressure and elemental composition, may differ by orders of magnitude from the real-world figures.

Opacity indicates how easily photons pass through matter. Photons of certain wavelengths can pass directly through a material, be absorbed or reflected back, depending on how they interact with certain molecules within the substance. This interaction also depends on the temperature and pressure of the material. An opacity model can help decipher the type and content of chemicals in a planet’s atmosphere based on the light the telescope captures.

If existing opacity models were applied to the light spectra obtained by the Webb telescope, they would reach the “wall of accuracy. In other words, they would not be sensitive enough to determine whether a planet has an atmospheric temperature of 300 or 600 kelvin or what gas occupies 5 or 25 percent of the atmospheric layer.

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