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Revealing the outer solar system’s minor body populations with JWST

Presentation #304.03 in the session Plenary Lecture: New Solar System Discoveries from the JWST (Plenary Lecture)

Published onOct 23, 2023
Revealing the outer solar system’s minor body populations with JWST

Trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) are icy remnants left over from the formation of our solar system’s planetary accretion disk. They orbit the Sun in the distant region beyond Neptune. Understanding these objects is vital for uncovering the mysteries surrounding their origin and evolution, as they are remnants from the ancient swarms of small bodies in our solar system’s outer reaches. Besides that, TNOs can also provide insight into the formation of the solar system as well as the migration of giant planets. Before the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) came into play, TNOs could be roughly separated based on their surface compositions. The large ones, the dwarf planets, were dominated by methane and its byproducts. Others had water ice and reddening featureless materials, with minor contributions from nitrogen-bearing species or methanol ice. The majority of the smaller TNOs exhibited featureless spectra with a diverse set of visible colors that hinted at the presence of a mixture of complex organic compounds and amorphous silicates on their surfaces. However, with one year of scientific operation, JWST is shaking things up. Several programs, including GTO programs like 1191, 1231, 1273, 1272, and 1254, focused on mid-sized and larger TNOs. Additionally, the Large GO program 2418, DiSCo-TNOs, investigated the surface compositions of medium to small-size TNOs, some of which were previously unachievable from ground-based spectroscopy facilities. In this presentation, we will provide an overview of the discoveries from these projects that are reshaping our understanding of the trans-Neptunian region and the state of the primordial Solar System.

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