Astronomers risk misunderstanding James Webb Telescope planetary signals: Life on other planets?

The James Webb Telescope has produced astonishing new images and data. So much so that the influx of data has become somewhat unreadable. Like a floppy drive trying to read a CD, some aspects of the data influx have given some scientists a bit of a problem.

The prospect of discovering a planet that could harbor life is a tantalizing dream we hope to find. The James Webb Telescope can read atmospheres on planets to gather information on how they may have formed, if they harbored life, are viable for us to live on, and if there is still life on it (an exciting or frightening idea.)

However, a new study by MIT has concluded that the data may not be read correctly due to current technological ability. To understand and decode these light signals and data sent back from the James Webb Space Telescope, our tools need an upgrade. 

The opacity model uses tools to see how light interacts with matter. With the added precision of the James Webb data, we require a bit of recalibrating and upgrading to our current tools. If these models are off, including the opacity model, then the results of learning a planet’s temperature, atmospheric composition, and more risk being misread by a hefty margin.

“There is a scientifically significant difference between a compound like water being present at 5 percent versus 25 percent, which current models cannot differentiate,” says study co-leader Julien de Wit, assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), in a statement.

“Currently, the model we use to decrypt spectral information is not up to par with the precision and quality of data we have from the James Webb telescope,” adds EAPS graduate student Prajwal Niraula. “We need to up our game and tackle together the opacity problem.”

Opacity is the measure of how easily photons can phase through a material. Photons that possess specific wavelengths can pass right through something, be reflected, or be absorbed. This depends on whether they interact with certain other molecules within said material or composition. Pressure and temperature are among some of the interactions that can affect the photon’s activity.

The telescope can tell us the percentage and types of chemicals in an atmosphere based on the light gathered. Professor de Wit likens this technique, the opacity model, to a language translation program. “So far, this Rosetta Stone has been doing OK,” de Wit adds “But now that we’re going to the next level with Webb’s precision, our translation process will prevent us from catching important subtleties, such as those making the difference between a planet being habitable or not.”

The scientists conducted a series of controlled experiments: They took light samples and tested 8 against the most common opacity model and “perturbed” them. Each perturbed model gave a plethora of wide-ranging predictions. The tests confirmed that using the current models and tools at hand will produce an “accuracy wall.”

Opacity models are an important part of collecting accurate data, but they have their limitations. The models have been developed using limited laboratory measurements and theoretical calculations — it will take a team of mighty scientists to tweak the data.

The research is published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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About the Author

Katie Kinlin

Katie Kinlin is a technical copywriter who loves all things space. She was an educator at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where she was inspired to pursue a career in aerospace. She helped test 73 internet satellites at OneWeb — all healthy and in Low Earth Orbit.

Her favorite vehicle is the space shuttle.

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