JWST Background Variability

Backgrounds in JWST observations vary seasonally for a given sky position; the magnitude of that variation depends on the observation wavelength and ecliptic latitude. 

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See also: JWST Background-Limited ObservationsJWST Backgrounds Tool

JWST backgrounds vary seasonally for a given sky position. The magnitude of its variation depends on the observation's wavelength and the target's ecliptic latitude. 

APT, the ETC, and the JWST scheduling system calculate these backgrounds, using the same background model. The JWST Backgrounds Tool can be used to calculate and visualize the seasonal variation of backgrounds for a given target.

Spatial and temporal variability of the background

Some components of the JWST background should be constant with time and telescope pointing, while others vary seasonally.

Thermal self-emission

Thermal self-emission dominates the JWST backgrounds for wavelengths > 12.5 μm. During commissioning, it was observed to be variable over ~week timescales by roughly 6% at F2550W, and less variable at shorter wavelengths.

Spatial variation of in-field emission

The in-field zodiacal emission depends strongly on ecliptic latitude. The in-field Galactic emission depends strongly on Galactic latitude. 

Temporal variation of in-field emission

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JWST can observe any specified location on the sky for at least 100 days per calendar year. The length of the visibility window increases with increasing ecliptic latitude. Within a visibility window, the in-field Galactic background will be constant, while the in-field zodiacal background will vary predictably with date as JWST looks through different path lengths of dust, with different temperatures, in our Solar System. Figure 1 shows an example of the temporal variability of the background over one year.
Figure 1. Example of seasonable variation of the JWST background

The total background versus day of the year for the Extended Groth Strip (EGS), which is an extragalactic deep field. This example is for a wavelength of 4.5 μm, where the background is dominated by zodiacal emission. The lower horizontal line marks the minimum background level for this RA, Dec, and wavelength. The upper horizontal line shows a background level that is 10% above the minimum background. For this example, the target is observable for 204 days per year, and 96 of those days have a background level <10% above the minimum background. Users can add the Background Limited special requirement in APT to specify that a background-sensitive observation should be scheduled when the background is relatively low. The default for this case in APT, as shown above, is "within 10%".

Spatial and temporal variation of stray light

Users should be aware that JWST is subject to stray light, and they should use the ETC to understand the degree to which stray light affects the signal-to-noise estimates for their planned observations.

The amount of stray light depends on the pointing and the observatory V3 roll angle. Models predict a strong correlation of the stray light level with the in-field zodiacal and Galactic background level, since half the susceptibility to stray light is predicted to occur within 35 degrees of the boresight (observatory V1 axis).

However, JWST is also susceptible to stray light from sources located far from the boresight. The JWST Exposure Time Calculator (ETC) uses maps that predict the susceptibility of JWST to stray light, given material properties and expected levels of dust contamination. For a given celestial position and date (which determines the nominal observatory V3 roll angle), the ETC projects the susceptibility maps onto the astronomical sky, to predict the amount of stray light at each instrument focal plane.

How seasonal variation of the background affects schedulability

The number of days per year that a target is observable to JWST is a simple function of ecliptic latitude, as illustrated by Figure 2. The JWST backgrounds are also a function of ecliptic latitude—both the minimum background over a year, and the shape of the seasonal variability curve. This has important consequences for target observability.

Figure 2. Number of days per year that targets are observable to JWST

The number of days per year that targets are observable to JWST is a simple function of ecliptic latitude.
Figure 3 illustrates how the seasonal variation of the JWST background is a predictable function of wavelength and ecliptic latitude. Targets at high ecliptic latitude and high Galactic latitude will have lower background than targets near the ecliptic plane or the Galactic plane. Figure 3 illustrates this: the background is lower for the 2 fields at high ecliptic latitude, compared to the COSMOS field which is located near the ecliptic plane. Moreover, ecliptic latitude controls how steeply the background rises with time: at high ecliptic latitude the background-versus-time curves are shallow, whereas near the ecliptic plane, the curves rise steeply. As a result, targets near the ecliptic may be observable with low background at 5–10 μm for only a few days per year.
Figure 3. Total background versus calendar date for selected extragalactic deep fields

Total JWST background versus calendar date for 3 extragalactic deep fields, at 3 choices of wavelength: 2.0 μm (top panel), 4.5 μm (middle panel), and 17.5 μm (bottom panel). The example targets are chosen to span a range of ecliptic latitude: −9° for COSMOS, 45° for GOODS-S, and +60° for the EGS.
Figure 4 expands these results for all ecliptic latitudes. Figure 4 plots the median number of low background days, as a function of ecliptic latitude, for the central wavelengths of the JWST broadband filters. Figure 4 shows that targets with low ecliptic latitude (40° to +40°) are observable for only a few days per year with low background. For example, targets on the ecliptic have only 14 days/year with background <10% above the minimum at 5 μm
Figure 4. Number of days that a target is observable to JWST with low background, versus ecliptic latitude

Number of days per year that targets are observable to JWST and have low background (for the default threshold of <10% above the minimum background), as a function of wavelength and ecliptic latitude. What is plotted is the median value in bins of 1° in ecliptic latitude. The thick black line, labeled “Nday,” shows the number of days per year that a target is observable, at any background level, as a function of ecliptic latitude.

Advice for proposers

See also: JWST Background-Limited Observations

The JWST Background-Limited Observations article describes a simple method, using the JWST ETC, to determine whether the signal-to-noise ratio of a particular observation is sensitive to the time-variable background. Observations that are background sensitive should use the Background Limited special requirement in APT, so that the observation will be scheduled when the background is relatively low. This special requirement affects the schedulability of an observation. 

Latest updates
    Minor text clarifications.

    This article broken out from the old Backgrounds article into a separate article, and expanded.

    Added more information in section “How to request low background for background-limited observations”

    Replaced Figure 3; Added Figure 4
    Added text in section "how backgrounds are treated by planning system"
Originally published