Arecibo Deputy Principal Scientist to Explore the Cosmos with the JWST

Arecibo Deputy Principal Scientist to Explore the Cosmos with the JWST


The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has begun its revolutionary exploration of the Universe, with NASA revealing the first images acquired by the telescope in July of 2022.

Dr. Noemí Pinilla-Alonso, the Deputy Principal Scientist of the Arecibo Observatory, will be one of the first scientists to use the powerful telescope to probe the outer depths of our Solar System.

“I am interested in studying the ice content in the Solar System,” says Dr. Pinilla-Alonso. She is leading a large observational program using the JWST to study the population of relatively small celestial bodies that lie beyond Neptune’s orbit known as trans-Neptunian objects.

Image Credits: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

“JWST will provide unique information on the surface composition of these icy bodies,” she says.

It is broadly accepted in the scientific community that trans-Neptunian objects are aggregates of ices and some coloring agents that could be silicates or complex organics. However, the only widespread detection in the population is water ice and only the largest ones show the presence of volatile ices such as methane, nitrogen, or carbon monoxide.

Dr. Pinilla-Alonso expects that to change with the upcoming JWST studies of these objects. “Spectroscopic observations by JWST are capable of detecting the fundamental spectral absorptions - or fingerprints - of ices expected to be abundant in the primordial disk - the earliest form of our Solar System,” she says. Therefore, we can expect to see the presence of many more ices on these distant worlds.

The team will study the temperature, mixtures, and crystallinity of the ices. “We expect to detect and characterize the main signatures of complex organics on the trans-Neptunian objects, giving us information about how they may have been irradiated in the outer Solar System,” says Dr. Pinilla-Alonso.

“The most exciting part of accessing a tool such as JWST is the capacity for discovery. I am sure that each spectrum will be a new puzzle for us to disentangle,” says Dr. Pinilla-Alonso.

JWST image of a group of galaxies known as Stephans Quintet. Credits: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI.

“Based on the diversity of colors, geometric albedo, rotation periods, densities, and shapes in the trans-Neptunian belt, we anticipate that the spectra will display a large complexity, which translates into large amounts of information.” She hopes to combine these new discoveries with results from NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, as well as data on icy moons acquired by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

“We will rewrite the textbooks about the origin and evolution of the Solar System,” predicts Dr. Pinilla-Alonso.

Dr. Noemí Pinilla-Alonso was interviewed in a documentary titled “Seeing the Universe Like We’ve Never Seen it Before”, where she talks about how the telescope will observe objects in our Solar System.

Dr. Pinilla-Alonso’s team is made up of 13 researchers worldwide led by a core group at the Florida Space Institute. They will observe 59 targets that represent the diversity observed in the icy objects.

In addition to Dr. Pinilla-Alonso, several other scientists from the University of Central Florida and Florida Space Institute, which manages the Arecibo Observatory, are primed for new discoveries with the JWST. Dr. Pinilla-Alonso is involved in several of the other programs, including a project to study dwarf planets and to study the climate on the Pluto-Charon system.

"Seeing The Universe Like We've Never Seen It Before" @ Bloomberg Quicktake: Originals - YouTube Channel

Article written by Dr. Tracy Becker - AO Collaborator / SwRI Research Scientist Contact:
Arecibo Media Contact
Ricardo Correa
Universidad Ana G. Méndez (UAGM)
787-878-2612 ext. 615

Keywords: inspiring, exploration