Noemí Pinilla-Alonso: The Spanish astronomer set out to explore the solar system’s largest and most mysterious framework | USA


The little girl is now 50, and as an astronomer at the Space Institute of Central Florida University, she is leading one of the most ambitious studies of the outer regions of our solar system to date; Using the James Webb Space Telescope, she and her team will explore what lies beyond Neptune, the last planet in our solar system. Pinilla-Alonso’s life was changed forever by one of the greatest astronomical controversies of this century: the discovery of a series of distant bodies larger than the dwarf planet Pluto, which led to intense international debate.

For the first time, the largest space telescope in history will be able to examine some of these bodies – namely Eris, Make Make and Haumea – and observe whether they have the basic ingredients for life. Thanks to the Webb Telescope, Pinilla-Alonso will also be able to explore Uranus’ unknown moons: Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon. But the goal of her venture is to study the trans-Neptune bodies, a large ring of millions of unknown objects that extend beyond the planet Neptune. A. That’s right. In comets, ice is converted to gas and dust. Therefore, we know that they contain compounds like methanol and carbon monoxide, key elements for life. In the most chaotic periods of the solar system, there was an echo between Jupiter and Saturn. Each orbited the Sun in its own way, but at some point they became gravitationally connected and moved in a coordinated way. They are the two largest planets, and they began to move in unison, sweeping everything around them aside and pushing smaller bodies out, like a huge billiard ball. Many of these bodies were sent either into the solar system or outward. At that time, there were many, many collisions with the Moon and Earth. And that may have been when ice water and organic compounds reached our planet and we got the beginning of life. These two giant planets also caused Uranus and Neptune to migrate to the outer rows of the solar system. And they, in turn, swept the outer zones. It is believed that in their original state, all trans-Neptune objects were 10 times larger than Earth. But most of them disappeared. Now there is only about 10% left. What we want to know is the details of what happened.

Q. Can life on Earth have its origin in these bodies? Q. Why is the James Webb Telescope so important for the study of these objects?

Reply. Trans-Neptune objects form one of the largest yet least known structures in the solar system. We are aware that this belt of icy objects beyond Neptune is the place where comets appear. We know that this belt contains large objects like Pluto, about 2,000 kilometers in diameter, and smaller, smaller than 10 kilometers. There may be trillions of them, though so far we only know of 3,000. We have no idea what their surface consists of. Water has been proven, but we do not know how much there is. We also do not know if this is the most common element, or if there is also ice composed of methane, methanol, nitrogen or carbon dioxide. And it is very important because it is the germ of life. Questions. Why go beyond Neptune?

We are far more blind to dangerous asteroids since the Arecibo telescope was dismantled A. As clichéd as it sounds, there are many unanswered questions when it comes to our knowledge of the solar system. For example, we do not fully understand how it was formed, or much about the planetesimals – the fragments that could go together and form the planets. Theories that try to explain it succeed only partially. James Webb is a large space telescope that can observe the infrared universe. This means that it will reveal a universe that has been hidden until now. As for trans-Neptune objects, it will show us the materials that form them. This will allow us to examine the processes that have affected them from the moment they were formed billions of years ago to the present day.

Q. What objects do you want to focus on? Q. Could we not do that with terrestrial telescopes? A. Since the first trans-Neptune object besides Pluto was discovered in 1992, many more of these bodies have been discovered. Seen from Earth, they are not very bright, and the data we can get with terrestrial telescopes is limited. Recently, we have discovered that there are not only larger bodies, but also smaller, weaker bodies in which water mixes with other materials. But it is impossible to identify these materials from the ground. We assume that those who are very red have complex organic matter – the most important compounds for life – but we need to confirm this and we will be able to do this with Webb.

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