COSAM News Articles 2024 01 Auburn postdoc uses James Webb Space Telescope to detect carbon dioxide for the first time in a Centaur

Auburn postdoc uses James Webb Space Telescope to detect carbon dioxide for the first time in a Centaur

Published: 01/09/2024

By: Maria Gebhardt

Olga Harrington Pinto, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physics, was granted access to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) where she calculated the CO2 detection for the first time from Centaur 39P/Oterma.

“A centaur is a small planetary body in space with an orbit located between Jupiter and Neptune that has both characteristics of a comet and an asteroid,” said Harrington Pinto.

They are named after the creature from Greek mythology because of their dual traits.

Harrington Pinto used JWST's Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) instrument to measure the production rates of carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and water from Centaur 39P/Oterma.

“This centaur displayed more distinct chemical composition characteristics than other comets and Centaurs observed at the same distance,” she said. “It could possibly be explained by the fact that these centaurs have had different orbital histories.”

The information was published in The Planetary Science Journal.

Even objects in space can cause issues.

“Looking at the images, there is actually a galaxy in the background of the centaur photos,” said Harrington Pinto. “The galaxy was actually photobombing our observations.”

In addition to publishing the research, she presented at the JWST Town Hall Talk and the Division of Planetary Science meeting during Oct. 2023.

“The research shows how little we truly understand about centaurs,” she added. “There is so much more to learn about these objects.”

Harrington Pinto conducted the research while pursuing her doctorate degree at the University of Central Florida (UCF). After graduation, she joined Auburn University.

“This CO2 detection is the lowest CO2 that’s been measured so far from all the currently available data on comets and Centaurs from multiple telescopes, and surveys,” added Harrington Pinto.

Adam McKay, from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and American University, lead the project that included UCF courtesy Professor of Physics Maria Womack, UCF Professor of Physics Yan Fernandez and Florida Space Institute assistant scientist Charles Schambeau.


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