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Meet Our Superhero Space Telescopes!

Meet Our Superhero Space Telescopes!

Meet Our Superhero Space Telescopes!

While the first exoplanets—planets beyond our solar system—were discovered using ground-based telescopes, the view was blurry at best. Clouds, moisture, and jittering air molecules all got in the way, limiting what we could learn about these distant worlds.

A superhero team of space telescopes has been working tirelessly to discover exoplanets and unveil their secrets. Now, a new superhero has joined the team—the James Webb Space Telescope. What will it find? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To capture finer details—detecting atmospheres on small, rocky planets like Earth, for instance, to seek potential signs of habitability—astronomers knew they needed what we might call “superhero” space telescopes, each with its own special power to explore our universe. Over the past few decades, a team of now-legendary space telescopes answered the call: Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, Kepler, and TESS.

In a cartoon of space, shown as black and gray, space telescopes rise out of the darkness one by one. One by one, their names are revealed: Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, Kepler, and TESS.ALT

Much like scientists, space telescopes don’t work alone. Hubble observes in visible light—with some special features (superpowers?)—Chandra has X-ray vision, and TESS discovers planets by looking for tiny dips in the brightness of stars.

An animated cartoon shows our Superhero space telescopes circling a crowd of multicolored exoplanets. Each of their observation beams is shown lighting up one by one in beautiful colors as they observe planets in the group.ALT

Kepler and Spitzer are now retired, but we’re still making discoveries in the space telescopes’ data. Legends! All were used to tell us more about exoplanets. Spitzer saw beyond visible light into the infrared and was able to make exoplanet weather maps! Kepler discovered more than 3,000 exoplanets.

Three space telescopes studied one fascinating planet and told us different things. Hubble found that the atmosphere of HD 189733 b is a deep blue. Spitzer estimated its temperature at 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit (935 degrees Celsius). Chandra, measuring the planet’s transit using X-rays from its star, showed that the gas giant’s atmosphere is distended by evaporation.

A cartoon exoplanet is shown as big and bright blue. It is with three space telescopes that studied it: Spitzer, Hubble, and Chandra. Exclamation marks light up as it reveals what each telescope found. Spitzer: 1,700 degrees F (933 degrees C) and 5,400 miles per hour winds (and 8,300 kph wind). Hubble: Blue clouds, raining glass. Chandra: evaporating atmosphere.ALT

Adding the James Webb Space Telescope to the superhero team will make our science stronger. Its infrared views in increased ranges will make the previously unseen visible.

A cartoon animation shows the five Superhero space telescopes circling slowly in the dark of space. Slowly, a new Superhero lowers into the middle of the circle. It is labeled James Webb, and as it lowers, streams of light shoot out. The space background goes from black and grays to streams of beautiful colors.ALT

Soon, Webb will usher in a new era in understanding exoplanets. What will Webb discover when it studies HD 189733 b? We can’t wait to find out! Super, indeed.

A cartoon animation pans across exoplanet after exoplanet as the cosmos is revealed in multitudes of colors and light. Some planets are spinning quickly, others are moving more slowly. Each one is a different color and size.ALT

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