In research overseen by Heidi Hammel, the James Webb Space Telescope’s infrared solid instruments will be tested on three comets in the solar system. The objective will be to assess the comets’ chemical compositions. As comets are a few of the most primitive bodies in the solar system, this data could reveal evidence about the solar system’s early life.
“We want to study comets with Webb because of the telescope’s very powerful capabilities in the near- and mid-infrared,” Hammel announced in a statement. “What makes those wavelengths of light particularly powerful for cometary studies is that they allow us to study the chemical makeup of this dust and gas that’s come off of the comet’s nucleus and figure out what it is.”
Hammel’s team will look into three comets, each from a unique comet family. The first will be a Jupiter-family comet, potentially Comet Borrelly, whose orbit is influenced by the gas giant’s gravity. The next will be a main-belt comet, also called the Comet Read.
The third will be the “target-of-opportunity comet,” suggesting a comet that hasn’t been found yet. The researchers hope that Webb will sight this third comet before this study starts and that it will refer to a different comet family, unlike the other two. In one probable scenario, the team would successfully study an Oort Cloud comet that might have emerged on the solar system’s outskirts. Another possible “opportunity comet” might appear from even distant afield, as did the interstellar objects Oumuamua and C/2019 Q4.