Researchers will use NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to study our neighboring, dusty planetary system Beta Pictoris.

Webb will be studying Beta Pictoris, an exciting young planetary system with at least two planets, a jumble of smaller, rocky bodies, and a dusty disk.

They want to learn more about the structures and properties of dust to comprehend better what’s happening in the system.

Since it’s only 63 light-years away and densely packed with dust, it appears bright in infrared light, which means Webb has a lot of data to sift through.

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First, a Review of What We Know

Several planned Webb observing missions are aimed at Beta Pictoris, including one led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s Chris Stark and two led by Christine Chen of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

Since the 1980s, Beta Pictoris has been studied in radio, infrared, and visible light.

The star is twice as huge and far hotter than our Sun, but it is also much younger. The Sun is 4.6 billion years old, whereas Beta Pictoris is just around 20 million.

The star is stable at this point, and it is home to at least two planets, both of which are significantly more massive than Jupiter.

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Like our own solar system, Beta Pictoris has a debris disk containing comets, asteroids, rocks of various sizes, and plenty of dust in diverse shapes that orbit the star.

A debris disk is far younger and more vast than our solar system’s Kuiper Belt, which starts near Neptune’s orbit and is the birthplace of many short-period comets.

A lot of activity happens around the outside ring of dust and debris. Pebbles and boulders could collide and shatter into far smaller pieces, releasing a great deal of dust.

Scrutinizing this Planetary System

Chris Stark’s team will use Webb’s coronagraphs, which block the star’s light, to view the faint bits of the debris disk that surround the entire system.

He stated that there are two massive planets around Beta Pictoris, and farther out, there is a belt of small bodies that are colliding and fragmenting.

Researchers will be able to analyze how microscopic dust grains interact with planets in the system, thanks to Webb’s images.

In addition, Webb will describe all of the fine dust that emanates from these objects, allowing astronomers to deduce the presence of bigger rocky things and their distribution in the system. They’ll also look at how the dust scatters light and reabsorbs and reemits light when it’s warm, so they can figure out what the dust comprises.

By collecting the details of Beta Pictoris, researchers will also be able to determine how similar this system is to our solar system, allowing us to determine whether our solar system’s contents are unique.

Dust as a Decoder Ring

Consider Beta Pictoris’ debris disk as a tremendously busy, elliptical highway – but one
without any traffic restrictions. Collisions between comets and massive rocks can result in fine dust particles scattering throughout the system.

Christine Chen explained that after planets, most of the mass in the Beta Pictoris system is thought to be in smaller planetesimals that we can’t directly observe. Fortunately, we can observe the dust left behind when planetesimals collide. Christine Chen’s team will focus their research on this dust. What do the tiniest dust grains resemble? Are they compact or fluffy? What materials are they made of?

Researchers will use Webb’s spectra to map the locations of dust and gas and determine their precise compositions.

Dust grains are invisible ‘fingerprints’ of planetesimals that reveal what these planetesimals are made of and how they formed. For example, are planetesimals ice-rich like comets in our solar system? Is there evidence of rocky planetesimals colliding at
high speeds?

To be specific, a cloud of carbon monoxide at the disk’s edge has piqued the researchers’ interest. It is asymmetrical, with a blobby, uneven side.

According to one theory, collisions expelled dust and gas from larger, frozen bodies, resulting in the formation of this cloud.

Webb’s spectra will aid in the development of hypotheses to explain its origin.

The Reach of Infrared

These research programs are only possible since Webb was built to deliver sharp, high-
resolution detail in infrared light. The observatory specializes in capturing images and spectra of infrared light, which passes through gas and dust.

Webb also has an edge in terms of its position in space. The Earth’s atmosphere, which filters off various types of light, including numerous infrared wavelength bands, will not affect Webb.

For the first time, researchers will be able to collect a broader range of infrared light and data about Beta Pictoris thanks to this observatory.

Webb is a NASA-led international project with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency. The telescope will look beyond our solar system to distant worlds orbiting other stars, as well as the mysterious architecture and origins of our universe and our place in it.

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