JWST Integral Field Spectroscopy

JWST integral field spectroscopy (IFS) is the process of dissecting an astronomical scene into multiple spatial components and dispersing each component with a spectrograph in order to provide spatially resolved spectroscopic information.

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See also: JWST Integral Field Spectroscopy RoadmapJWST Integral Field Spectroscopy Terminology, MIRI Medium Resolution SpectroscopyNIRSpec IFU Spectroscopy 

Integral field units (IFUs) combine imaging and spectroscopic capabilities to acquire spatially resolved 2-dimensional spectroscopy in a single astronomical exposure. By dispersing the light from discrete spatial elements of the field of view, an image of the source is acquired at each wavelength, and (equivalently) a spectrum is captured at each spatial position (Figure 1). This provides a powerful dataset to study the characteristics of a wide variety of extended astronomical sources, including galaxies, nebulae and crowded stellar fields.

Figure 1. IFU slicer schematic

Figure 1 illustrates the basic principle of the JWST slicer-type integral field spectrograph. The telescope focal plane is sampled use an array of slicing mirrors, each of which then directs its light to a dispersive element to produce a long slit spectrum of each slice on a detector. Pipeline processing then reconstructs the dispersed spectra together into a 3-dimensional data cube consisting of images of the source at each wavelength (or correspondingly, a spectrum of the source in each spaxel).
The specialized optics in IFU instruments isolate the spatial segments of a scene, format and align them onto the grating or prism in a spectrograph, and disperse the spectra from each position onto the detectors in a way so that data do not overlap (e.g., Figure 2). Specialized processing algorithms reformat the detector pixel data into 1-dimensional spectra of the individual optical samples of the astronomical scene (row-stacked spectra) and/or a data cube with 2 spatial dimensions and one spectral dimension. These 3-D data cubes can then be used to study spatially resolved spectroscopic quantities such as gas kinematics (derived from nebular emission lines), stellar kinematics (derived from absorption lines and stellar spectral templates), chemical composition, ionization profiles, and more.

Why use an integral field unit (IFU)?

See also: JWST Integral Field Spectroscopy Terminology

Integral field units offer combined spatial and spectral information for an astronomical target; thought of another way, they provide a full spectrum for every spatial position in the field of view. This allows them to efficiently produce spatial maps of spectroscopic quantities such as kinematics and diagnostic line ratio strengths. Additionally, IFUs are not affected by traditional slit loss problems (any light lost from one optical element is recovered by the adjacent element), reduce the need for target acquisition procedures (since objects do not generally need to be carefully centered within a single slit), and provide a better estimate of the extended background/foreground structures surrounding the astrophysical object of interest. IFUs thus provide extremely dense information coverage for a single object, typically at the cost of a relatively small field of view.

The IFUs aboard JWST are thus particularly useful for obtaining spectral maps of extended sources up to a few arcseconds in size (or larger, with mosaicing), or for obtaining spectra of point sources in which there is expected to be significant background emission which must be characterized and subtracted. Additionally, for mid-infrared wavelengths, the MIRI IFU is the only instrument capable of obtaining moderate resolution spectroscopy longward of 5 μm.


Main articles: MIRI Medium Resolution Spectroscopy, NIRSpec IFU Spectroscopy

JWST has 2 IFUs: the MIRI medium resolution spectrometer (MRS) provides R ~ 1,500–3,500 spectroscopy from wavelengths of 4.9 to 27.9 μm over a contiguous field of view up to  6.6'' × 7.7'' in size, while NIRSpec provides R ~ 100, 1,000, and 2,700 spectroscopy from 0.6 to 5.3 μm over a contiguous field of view 3" × 3" in size. Details of the individual instruments are provided in the articles listed below.

Considerations for observing with the JWST IFUs

Main articles: NIRSpec IFU Dither and Nod Patterns, MIRI MRS PSF and Dithering, MIRI MRS Dedicated Sky Observations
See also: MIRI MRS Target Acquisition, NIRSpec Target Acquisition

Background observations

All astronomical scenes will contain signal from both the target of interest and background/foreground signal arising from zodiacal light, telescope thermal emission, or a variety of astrophysical sources. In many cases, it will be desirable to measure this signal so that it can be reliably removed from the spectrum of the object of interest, especially longwards of 15 μm where telescope thermal emission dominates the background signal.

Traditional methods of dealing with background subtraction for IFS data depend on the structure of the science target. For point source targets (or those that are small compared to the field of view), A/B style dithering is often performed to observe the target with two or more exposures widely spaced enough that each exposure can serve as the background for the other. This approach is not always practical with JWST however, as the wings of the PSF extend throughout the entire FOV (especially at long wavelengths), and therefore annular background subtraction with a corresponding aperture correction to account for light losses is often employed for point sources instead.  For extended sources that fill an appreciable fraction of the field of view a dedicated off-source background observation is typically obtained in order to provide a clean measurement of the background signal in a part of the sky known to be free of emission from the science target.

These different methods are reflected in the JWST Exposure Time Calculator as nod-in-scene (for point source targets) or nod-off-scene (for extended targets), as detailed in JWST ETC IFU Strategies.

For more information on background observations for the MIRI and NIRSpec IFUs, please see MIRI MRS Dedicated Sky Observations and NIRSpec Background Recommended Strategies, respectively.


Since the JWST IFUs are spatially undersampled at most wavelengths, it is important to obtain dithered observations in order to optimize the image quality of the resulting data cubes. Detailed MIRI MRS and NIRSpec dither patterns have been designed that use sub-integer offsets to improve the sampling of the JWST point spread function. In addition to improving the spatial sampling (and corresponding image quality), dithering can also improve the spectral sampling of the IFUs, help mitigate the impact of bad pixels by sampling a source with redundant detector locations, and (in some cases) allow for measurement of the background signal in the IFU field of view.

PSF/LSF variations

In any integral field spectrograph, the size and shape of the spatial point spread function (PSF) and the spectral line spread function (LSF) (i.e., the spectral resolution) can change over the IFU's field of view. Any analyses working with these data should bear this in mind; estimates of the variability will become available during the calibration process.

Target acquisition

The JWST IFUs can be used to observe both point sources (e.g., stars) and diffuse sources (e.g., nebulae). The absolute pointing accuracy of JWST is typically smaller than 0.19" (1 sigma, radial), and if systematic errors are removed between the Fine Guidance Sensors and the science instruments, the residual scatter is below 0.1" (1 sigma, radial); if more precise positioning of the object in the IFU field of view is required, e.g. because its coordinates are uncertain or it will be observed using large dithers or nods, then target acquisition should be performed using a bright point source. If the science target is diffuse, a nearby point source may be used for target acquisition instead if the relative positions of the science and offset targets are known to high precision.

Working with integral field data

The complex format of IFS data can present multiple challenges for data analysis, but numerous tools and techniques have been developed for interacting with and visualizing such data.

  • Undersampling: Since both the MIRI and NIRSpec IFUs are significantly undersampled, rectifying the native detector pixels into a regular 3d data cube can produce a 'resampling noise' in the vicinity of unresolved point sources that manifests as amplitude modulations in spectra of individual spaxels whose frequency varies according to the curvature of the spectral trace on the detector.  See Law et al. 2023 for details.
  • Covariance: Since spectral data cubes are constructed from algorithms that reformat dispersed spectra, there is often significant covariance between adjacent spaxels in a data cube. There are a variety of methods that have been developed to account for this covariance in analyses of stacked spectra, most simplistically a simple multiplicative scaling of the errors in a region of a given size (see Law et al. 2023 for details).
  • Color maps: Since a major product of IFS data is two-dimensional maps of astrophysical quantities, color is often used to convey information in such plots. Many commonly-available color maps (e.g., 'jet') can obscure genuine features in data and create perceived structures when none exist, in addition to being difficult to read for those with color blindness.  Well-researched perceptually uniform alternatives include viridis, and the divergent RdBu options available in many modern plotting programs.  Color lookup tables (e.g., for use with ds9) are available for both viridis and RdBu.
  • Voronoi binning: This is a classic technique used to construct spatial binning regions of varying size and shape where the corresponding spectra reach fixed continuum signal to noise.
  • Data cube construction: A variety of techniques exist to reformat pixel-level data into a convenient 3-D cube format, but the optimal method of constructing these cubes can vary depending on the science case.  See cube_build for details.
  • JWST analysis tools: These tools allow the user to work with IFU data products within the JWST software ecosystem.

Related articles

Observing strategies

MIRI MRS Recommended Strategies
NIRSpec Bright Spoilers and the IFU Recommended Strategies

Example science programs

NIRSpec IFU and MIRI MRS Observations of Cassiopeia A
MIRI MRS and NIRSpec IFU Observations of SN 1987A
MIRI MRS Spectroscopy of a Late M Star
NIRSpec IFU and Fixed Slit Observations of Near-Earth Asteroids

Additional resources

  • IFS Wiki: A shared resource for historical background and tips/tricks for working with IFS data
  • 3D Spectroscopy in Astronomy: An introductory text based on lectures at the Canary Island Winter School

Latest updates
    Updated for Cycle 3 to add information on undersampling and covariance.
Originally published