Noemí Pinilla-Alonso: the Spanish astronomer set out to explore the largest and most mysterious confines of the Solar System | USA

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That 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 investigations into the outer reaches 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 biggest astronomical controversies this century: the discovery of a number of distant bodies larger than the dwarf planet Pluto that led to intense international debate.

For the first time, the largest space telescope in history will be able to scrutinize 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 the unknown moons of Uranus: Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon. But the thrust of her venture is to study the trans-Neptunian bodies, a vast ring of millions of unknown objects that extends beyond the planet of Neptune. A. That’s right. In comets, ice is turned into gas and dust. That is why we know that they contain compounds such as methanol and carbon monoxide, key elements for life. During the Solar System’s most chaotic periods, there was an echo between Jupiter and Saturn. Each orbited around the Sun in its own way, but at one point they became gravitationally connected and moved in a coordinated manner. They are the two largest planets and they began to move in unison, sweeping everything around them aside, and ejecting smaller bodies, like a huge billiard ball. Many of these bodies were sent either into the Solar System or outwards. At that time there were many, many collisions with the Moon and the Earth. And that may have been when iced water and organic compounds reached our planet and we got the very beginnings of life. These two giant planets also caused Uranus and Neptune to migrate to the outer reaches of the Solar System. And they, in turn, swept the outer zones. It is thought that in their original state, all trans-Neptunian objects were 10 times larger than Earth. But most of them disappeared. Now only about 10% is left. What we want to know are 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 to the study of these objects?

Answer. Trans-Neptunian 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 where comets emerge from. We know that this belt contains large objects like Pluto, about 2,000 kilometers in diameter, and smaller ones, less than 10 kilometers. There may be trillions of them, although so far we only know of 3,000. We have no idea what their surface consists of. Water has been detected, but we do not know how much there is. Nor do we know if this is the most abundant element or if there is also ice composed of methane, methanol, nitrogen or carbon dioxide. And that is very important because those are the seeds of life. Question. 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 a lot of 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 join together to form the planets. Theories attempting to explain it only partially succeed. The James Webb is a large space telescope that can observe the infrared universe. That means it will reveal a universe that has been hidden until now. On the subject of trans-Neptunian 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 are you going to focus on? Q. Couldn’t we do it with ground-based telescopes? A. Since the first trans-Neptunian object besides Pluto was discovered in 1992, many more of these bodies have been detected. Seen from Earth, they are not very bright and the data we can obtain with ground-based telescopes is limited. Recently, we have discovered that there are not only larger bodies, but also smaller, dimmer bodies in which water is mixed with other materials. But it is impossible to identify these materials from the ground. We assume that those that are very red have complex organics – those key compounds for life – but we need to confirm this and we will be able to do this with Webb.

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