If pictures from the legendary James Webb Space Telescope continue to blow your mind, you’re not the only one – the space observatory has offered us detailed pictures of far-off galaxies, nebulae, and even our cosmic backyard.
But scientists from Harvard and MIT warn that the models used by astronomers to analyze James Webb’s data could be flawed. In a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, astronomers claim that the telescope’s data can hamper the way scientists define a habitable planet.
Why James Webb’s data could be wrong
“Opacity models – the tools that model how light interacts with matter as a function of the matter’s properties – may need significant retuning in order to match the precision of JWST data, the researchers say,” a press release stated.
If such models aren’t refined, important life-defining properties like temperature, pressure, and elemental composition may be misinterpreted.
“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).
As de Wit explained, the current model used to process data is called “Rosetta Stone” language translation and was also used on the Hubble Space Telescope. But for more accuracy, more work is needed.
“Now that we’re going to the next level with Webb’s precision,” de Wit said, “our translation process will prevent us from catching important subtleties, such as those making the difference between a planet being habitable or not.”
According to the paper, JWST’s predictions would be unable to differentiate between a planet whose atmospheric temperature is 300 Kelvin and another that has twice the heat at 600 Kelvin.
“There is so much that could be done if we knew perfectly how light and matter interact,” Niraula, the graduate student who worked on the study, said. “We know that well enough around the Earth’s conditions, but as soon as we move to different types of atmospheres, things change, and that’s a lot of data, with increasing quality, that we risk misinterpreting,” Niruala added.
Study: Astronomers risk misinterpreting planetary signals in JWST data. (2022, September 15). MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://news.mit.edu/2022/astronomers-models-planetary-data-0915
Al-Sibai, N. (2022b, September 19). Harvard and MIT Scientists Warn That James Webb Data May Not Be What It Seems. Futurism. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://futurism.com/harvard-mit-study-jwst-data