JWST Background Model

JWST observations will detect infrared background emission from multiple sources: the zodiacal cloud, the Milky Way Galaxy, and thermal self-emission from the Observatory itself. Both in-field and scattered emission are important contributors to the JWST background.  

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See also: Background VariabilityBackground-Limited ObservationsBackgrounds Tool

Several components of infrared background emission will contribute to JWST observations, and these backgrounds are variable with position in the sky and over time.  Many observations with JWST will be background-limited, meaning that the noise will be dominated by the level of background emission, and not by photon noise from the target or detector read-noise. The JWST proposal planning system (PPS) calculates these background levels for both planning and scheduling purposes. This page summarizes the sources of background emission that are important for JWST and their relative contribution as a function of wavelength.

A python-based tool is available for providing a visualization of the various background components for a given target and set of assumptions.

Components of the background emission

Several components contribute to the background emission that JWST will detect. The primary in-field sources of this background are the zodiacal cloud of the Solar System and the Milky Way Galaxy. In the thermal infrared (longward of ~15 μm), the background is dominated by thermal self-emission, mostly from the JWST primary mirror segments, as well as scattered thermal emission from the sunshield. Since JWST does not have a traditional optical baffle, light from the out-of-field sky can also gain access to the focal planes through scattering—this additional source of background is called "stray light."

Figure 1 illustrates the relative expected contributions of these components to the JWST background for a benchmark pointing. This pointing (ecliptic Long, Lat = 266.3°, −50.0°; RA, Dec [J2000] = 17h26m44s, −73°19'56") has a zodiacal emission that is 20% higher than the celestial minimum. It was chosen as a benchmark because it is a stressing case for stray light. The backgrounds are expressed as equivalent units of uniform sky radiance (megaJanskys per steradian, or MJy/sr) at the JWST focal planes. Figure 1 shows that, in general, in-field zodiacal emission and scattered light are the main sources of background at wavelengths less than 4 μm; in-field zodiacal emission dominates from 4 to 15 μm, and thermal self-emission dominates at wavelengths longward of 15 μm. At 4–8 μm, the thermal emission from the zodiacal dust is particularly steeply rising with the surface brightness well described by the Wien approximation. As a result, NIRCam imaging observations at 4–5 μm are background limited and medium filter (F410M, F430M, F460M, F480M) observations are more sensitive than wide filter (F444W) observations.

Stray light, which is out-of-field emission scattered into the field of view, is primarily due to the zodiacal cloud and the Milky Way. In the example shown in Figure 1, this stray light is less than but comparable to the in-field zodiacal emission from 1 to 4 μm. The amount of stray light depends on ecliptic latitude (pointings toward the ecliptic poles will have lower stray light) and the orientation of the Milky Way with respect to JWST for a given pointing. Since the benchmark pointing used in Figure 1 was chosen to be a stressing case for stray light, most extragalactic deep fields should have a lower level of stray light. As one example, the stray light level in the Hubble UltraDeep Field (HUDF) should be about half that of the benchmark pointing.

Figure 1. Contributions to JWST background emission, expressed in equivalent units of uniform sky radiance (MJy/SR) at the JWST focal planes

JWST background emission

This example is for the benchmark pointing (ecliptic Long, Lat = 266.3°, −50.0°, RA, Dec (J2000) =17h26m44s −73°19'56"), chosen to have a zodiacal emission that is 20% higher than the celestial minimum, and to be a stressing case for stray light. In this example, in-field emission from the zodiacal cloud and the Milky Way (blue curve) dominates the background for most wavelengths below 15 μm. At longer wavelengths, thermal emission from JWST itself (red curve) is the dominant source of background. Stray light (yellow curve) results from zodiacal and Milky Way emission scattered into the field of view, and is a significant fraction of the total background, particularly at 1 to 4 μm. The sum of all these emission components is the total background (black curve). Download the background file used in this plot (FITS format) .
At wavelengths greater than 15 μm, the background seen by JWST is expected to be dominated by thermal emission from JWST itself. Figure 2 shows the expected spectrum of this thermal self-emission, and the major components that produce it. This thermal emission dominates the background at wavelengths longer than 15 μm. As Figure 2 shows, emission from the primary mirror is expected to dominate at wavelengths greater than 21 μm, and that scattered thermal emission from the sunshield will dominate from 15 to 21 μm. As discussed above and shown in Figure 1, at wavelengths shorter than 15 μm, the in-field zodiacal background dominates over thermal emission at the benchmark pointing. The thermal curve plotted in Figure 2 is a conservative estimate of likely on-orbit performance; it is incorporated into the JWST Exposure Time Calculator (ETC) and the JWST scheduling system, and is included in this FITS format example background file.
Figure 2. Expected thermal self-emission from JWST

Expected thermal self-emission from JWST

Extensive thermal modeling has predicted the temperatures and emissivities of JWST components. This was combined with scattering models to predict the level of thermal background. The two components that contribute most to thermal self-emission are the primary mirror and the sunshield. At wavelengths greater than 21 μm, thermal emission from the primary mirror (green line) should dominate the background. From 15 to 21 μm, the background should be dominated by thermal emission from the sunshield (thin black line), which is scattered into the field of view by the assumed levels of dust contamination on the primary and secondary mirrors. Thermal emission from the rest of JWST (purple line) is also shown. The total thermal self-emission (red line) is a conservative estimate of expected performance; it is what is assumed by the JWST ETC and Astronomers Proposal Tool (APT). Also shown (red dots) are the JWST design requirements for thermal performance (3.4 MJy/sr at 10 μm, and 200 MJy/sr at 20 μm), as well as modeled thermal performance at these design wavelengths (grey dots). For comparison, the total background (thick black line) and the in-field backgrounds (blue line) from Figure 1 are also shown.

Uncertainty in background levels

In addition to the variability of the backgrounds, there is intrinsic uncertainty in the models used.  The ETC calculates the in-field zodiacal and Galactic backgrounds using a model based on Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) data (Kelsall et al. 1998; Reach et al. 1997), that was developed and used operationally for the Spitzer Space Telescope, with the Galactic stellar contribution refined using data from the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) survey. This model agrees with the Spitzer Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) measurements at the few percent level (Krick et al. 2012 ). As such, the in-field backgrounds predicted by the ETC should be very reliable.

By contrast, the predicted levels of stray light and of thermal self-emission carry considerable intrinsic uncertainties. These estimates depend on extensive modeling of the scattering properties of observatory materials, estimates of the amount and properties of contaminating dust particles, knowledge of the deployed observatory configuration, and thermal models incorporating material emissivities which result in temperature estimates of all surfaces which can act as sources of thermal background.  

The stray light estimates are thought to have uncertainties of order (+30%, −20%). Proposers should use the ETC to understand the extent to which stray light contributes to the total background of their observations, and bear in mind these uncertainties on the stray light predictions.

The thermal background curve (thermal self-emission in Figures 1 and 2) is a conservative best estimate based on detailed thermal modeling. It is neither a worst nor best case scenario, and is also uncertain at the (+30%, −20%) level. Users are cautioned that, for cycle 1, exposure time estimates will be highly uncertain for background-limited observations at wavelengths longer than 15 μm until actual performance can be determined on orbit.

Both the thermal and stray light backgrounds will be measured during the commissioning of JWST; results will be disseminated to users prior to the cycle 2 proposal deadline.

Background levels in the ETC

See also: JWST Exposure Time Calculator Overview

The JWST Exposure Time Calculator (ETC) will calculate backgrounds for a given celestial position.  If the user specifies a date, the ETC will give the best estimate of background on that date. Otherwise, the user can choose a low background (10th percentile), a medium background (50th percentile), or high background (90th percentile), all calculated for the selected celestial position over the period of visibility.  Figure 4 shows how to input this background information into the ETC. The computed background spectrum can be downloaded as a FITS file, and the total background can be found in the "background" section of the input.json file included in the downloads, as described in the JWST ETC Outputs Overview page.

Figure 3. ETC screenshot of the Backgrounds tab

ETC screenshot of the Backgrounds tab

An ETC screenshot of the Backgrounds tab, selecting the background for a given position, and the 10th percentile best background (Low).

Background Levels in the APT

See also: JWST Astronomers Proposal Tool OverviewAPT Special Requirements

If your observation(s) are not limited by background, nothing has to be done when specifying the observation is APT. However, if your experiments with the ETC convince you that your observation is background-limited, you can set a BACKGROUND LIMITED special requirement on the relevant observation.


Kelsall et al. 1998, ApJ, 508, 44  
The COBE Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment Search for the Cosmic Infrared Background. II. Model of the Interplanetary Dust Cloud

Krick J. E. et al., 2012, ApJ, 754, 53   
A Spitzer/IRAC Measure of the Zodiacal Light

Reach, W. T., Franz, B. A., & Weiland, J. L, 1997, Icarus, 127, 461  
The Three-Dimensional Structure of the Zodiacal Dust Bands



Latest updates
    The previous "Backgrounds" article was restructured into several new articles. This one now concentrates on the components that contribute to the overall infrared background.

  • 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"