NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will be used to try and uncover Earth-like planets and larger "super-Earths" orbiting nearby stars as part of the organisation's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
Launched in April this year, TESS is all about observing small exoplanets with thin atmospheres like Earth. The Webb telescope will work alongside it to examine the atmospheres of some planets that TESS discovers, targeting hot, gaseous exoplanets first.
Some of Webb's first observations of gas giant exoplanets will be conducted through the Director's Discretionary Early Release Science program, NASA said.
This means that the transiting exoplanet project team at Webb's science operations centre will conduct three different types of observations that will provide both new scientific knowledge and a better understanding of the performance of Webb's science instruments.
"We have two main goals; the first is to get transiting exoplanet datasets from Webb to the astronomical community as soon as possible. The second is to do some great science so that astronomers and the public can see how powerful this observatory is," said Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago, a co-principal investigator on the transiting exoplanet project.
Natalie Batalha of NASA's Ames Research Center, the project's principal investigator, added:
"Our team's goal is to provide critical knowledge and insights to the astronomical community that will help to catalyse exoplanet research and make the best use of Webb in the limited time we have available."
For their first observations, the project team selected WASP-79b as their target planet, a Jupiter-sized planet located about 780 light-years from Earth.
The team expects to detect and measure the abundances of water, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide in WASP-79b. Webb also might detect new molecules not yet seen in exoplanet atmospheres.
Ultimately, astronomers want to use the telescope to study potentially habitable planets, NASA said. In particular, it will target planets orbiting red dwarf stars since those stars are smaller and dimmer, making it easier to tease out the signal from an orbiting planet.
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