JWST high-contrast imaging (HCI) often requires an observation of a nearby, unresolved reference star with similar spectro-photometric properties to the target of interest, to ensure effective PSF subtraction. 


Parent article: JWST High-Contrast Imaging
Main articles: NIRCam Coronagraphic PSF EstimationNIRCam Coronagraphic Recommended Strategies, NIRISS AMI Recommended Strategies 
See also: MIRI Coronagraphy of GJ 758 b, NIRCam and MIRI Coronagraphy of the Beta Pictoris Debris Disk, NIRISS AMI Science Use Case

The baseline strategy for high-contrast imaging (HCI) with JWST includes the observation of a nearby star to generate an unresolved, high signal-to-noise (SNR) point spread function (PSF) to subtract from the science target, and thereby reach the highest possible contrast, with the goal of revealing faint astronomical signals surrounding the science target.  The quality of this so-called reference differential imaging (RDI) can be altered by several factors such as:

  • the PSF reference is not single or is resolved (e.g., binary or disk)

  • the target acquisition (centering, in the case of a coronagraph) of the science target and PSF reference differ (the PSF reference is acquired at a different position and time)

  • position or thermally-induced wavefront drifts of the observatory resulting in the PSF being no longer exactly the same as when the science target was acquired

  • the science target and PSF reference differ in color or spectral energy distribution

The first factor can be addressed by selecting known good PSF reference stars, but this is not always trivial. The second factor can be addressed by using the small grid dither technique.  The observer can minimize the impact of the latter two factors by (1) choosing a reference star in relative proximity to the science target (to mitigate thermal changes) and (2) by selecting a reference star that is spectro-photometrically similar to the science target. Choosing a nearby reference star also minimizes the telescope overheads (by reducing slew time).  By including the science observation(s) and the PSF reference observation in a non-interruptible sequence, the visibility windows of the science and reference star must necessarily overlap at the time of the desired observation.

So how close in the spatial dimension must the science PSF star be to minimize thermal effects, and how close in spectral properties must they be for an acceptable match?  There is no simple answer, but some guidelines may help. 

Effect of spectral "mismatch"

See also: JWST High-Contrast Imaging Inner Working Angle

The spectral mismatch between the science target (hereafter “SCIENCE”) and its corresponding PSF “REFERENCE(s)" has a stronger impact at shorter wavelengths and with wider filters. For a simple monochromatic case (narrowband filter in the continuum), when performing the PSF subtraction SCIENCE − REFERENCE, one needs to account for the flux difference and photometrically rescale the REFERENCE. If the REFERENCE is fainter, the process of flux rescaling also scales the noise, and that is why it is recommended to use brighter REFERENCE(s) whenever possible.

If one thinks in terms of spectral energy distribution (SED) for both objects binned in spectral channels, the ideal photometric scaling factors can vary significantly from one spectral channel to the next. One can measure it empirically on the data but only in the spectral bandwidth of the filter. If it is a broadband filter, only an average scaling factor will be applied to the whole polychromatic image which can be thought of a superimposition of many PSFs at different wavelengths. The spectral mismatch between SCIENCE and REFERENCE will thus not only generate extra noise but allow possible under- and over-subtraction at various spatial locations of the PSF. Over-subtraction leads to negative fluxes and affects the estimation of the contrast and hence the detection limits. If one of the objects has strong emission features in its spectrum in the spectral bandwidth that is considered, the effect can be dramatic.

The Exposure Time Calculator (ETC) calculates the flux for each object through a given filter, accounting for the spectral type (or user-provided spectrum). However, the ETC considers the PSF profiles to be exactly the same and hence does not account for the loss in sensitivity due to under- and over-subtraction caused by a spectral mismatch.

This effect is assumed to be negligible above ~5 µm (hence for MIRI). Also, the effect will be obviously stronger closer to the center of the PSF and/or where the coronagraphic 3-D profile has structures (i.e., <10 λ/D). Further out, in the background-limited regime, the effect will be minor. At longer wavelengths, the background-limited regime takes over quickly from the speckle-limited regime where the effect can be substantial.

Effect for NIRCam coronagraphy

The NIRCam team has evaluated the effect of spectral mismatch on sensitivity for separations between 0.5” and 2” from a central object.  These calculations were performed using pyNRC, a Python-based tool making use of WebbPSF. Figures 1–3 show the results for 3 of the most common filters (F200W, F322W2, and F444W) for NIRCam coronagraphic imaging with round occulting masks.

Note: these calculations are only accounting for the effect of spectral mismatch between a science target (vertical axis) and a PSF reference (horizontal axis). They suppose that everything else is optimal (no thermal drift induced wavefront errors, no misregistration). Therefore this loss of sensitivity  should be thought of as the "best case scenario" if everything else is well mitigated thanks to a good observing and PSF subtraction strategy. It is probably safe to assume these results are reliable beyond 1" separation, as inside this region other effects will dominate any spectral mismatch effects. Nevertheless, in many cases the loss of sensitivity due to spectral mismatch may be acceptable and constraints on the spectral type may be relaxed in favor of suitable reference stars that are brighter and/or closer on the sky.

Web users may click on the figures for a larger view.

Figure 1. Estimated sensitivity losses due to spectral mismatch for NIRCam coronagraphy in F200W

Estimated average sensitivity losses ( in magnitudes) due to spectral mismatch between a science target (vertical axis) and a PSF reference (horizontal axis) for separations 0.5”–2” with NIRCam coronagraphy over the whole spectral bandwidth of the F200W filter and using the round occulting mask MASK210R. Other sources of sensitivity loss (including thermal drift and mis-registration) are not considered here.

Figure 2. Estimated sensitivity losses due to spectral mismatch for NIRCam coronagraphy in F322W2

Estimated average sensitivity losses as in Figure 1, but for F322W2 and the round occulting mask MASK335R.

Figure 3. Estimated sensitivity losses due to spectral mismatch for NIRCam coronagraphy in F444W

Estimated average sensitivity losses as in Figure 1, but for F444W and the round occulting mask MASK430R.

Selecting PSF reference stars with Simbad

Using Simbad's "Query by coordinates" form, one can enter the coordinates of the science target and look exhaustively (to the catalogs' sensitivity limit) in a region surrounding the target of interest. From the returned table, one can sort by distance (in arcseconds), spectral type, magnitude and eventually narrow down the search iteratively to find the best suited PSF reference stars. Since JWST is mainly an infrared telescope, it is recommended prior to executing this query to adjust the "Options and output parameters", enabling the J, H, and K band magnitudes (most convenient to compare with one's science target). 

Using Simbad's "Query by criteria", one can search specific ranges of right ascension, declination, magnitude and even spectral type. Here is an example to identify a PSF reference star in the vicinity of Beta Pictoris with similar properties: 

rah >= 04 & rah <= 07 & dec > -70 & dec < -40 & Kmag <= 4 & sptypes <= 'A9'

The returned results are:

Number of objects : 6

#|       identifier        |typ|  coord1 (ICRS,J2000/2000)   |Mag V |Mag K |  spec. type   |#bib|#not
1|* bet Pic                |*  |05 47 17.08769 -51 03 59.4412| 3.86 | 3.48 |A6V            |1149|   1
2|* del Dor                |*  |05 44 46.37811 -65 44 07.9011| 4.36 | 3.71 |A7V            |  50|   0
3|* alf Dor                |a2*|04 33 59.77719 -55 02 41.9243| 3.28 | 3.52 |B8IIIpSi       |  46|   0
4|* nu. Pup                |Ce*|06 37 45.67135 -43 11 45.3602| 3.17 | 3.39 |B8III          |  35|   0
5|* alf Car                |*  |06 23 57.10988 -52 41 44.3810|-0.74 |-1.35 |A9II           | 149|   0
6|* alf Pic                |PM*|06 48 11.45512 -61 56 29.0008| 3.30 | 2.570|A8VnkA6        |  67|   0

Note: the Python package Astroquery should allow one to perform similar Simbad and/or VizieR queries in a command line or batch manner.

Selecting PSF reference stars with SearchCal 

The Jean-Marie Mariotti Center (JMMC) has created tools for the community including SearchCal, a GUI that allows users to select suitable, non-resolved calibrator targets matching various criteria. While SearchCal was designed for long-baseline optical/IR interferometry (hence the squared visibility criterion), it can easily be used to match JWST HCI needs. It offers a practical and graphical way to narrow down a search of PSF reference stars from a catalog of 2.5 million pre-selected stars (with computed and/or measured stellar diameters).

To use SearchCal for your JWST HCI needs:

  • Query your science target in the Name field of the GUI (top, center)
  • Select K as the Magnitude Band in the Instrumental Configuration section (top, left). The K-band magnitude of the object will automatically be fetched from Simbad.
  • Chose your Scenario in the SearchCal Parameters (top, right):
    • Bright: In the Bright case (few, on average brighter, stars with known spectral type), the research field is a rectangular box, with a maximum size of 240.0 min (60º) in Right Ascension and 30.0º in Declination. Since we care about the spectral type for the reasons explained in the above section, the Bright scenario is preferred as the first iteration, unless no suitable star is found.
    • Faint: all 2.5 million stars from the catalog are browsed and returned in a circular patch with a maximum radius of 3,600 arcmin (60º).
  • Press Get Calibrators (Button on the top right hand corner) and obtain a list of Found Calibrators in the middle sub-panel
  • Use the Filters (bottom sub-panel) to narrow down the search while focusing on the distance (dist column to the left) and the spectral type (SpType column). The most useful filters to enable for JWST HCI are:
    • Reject Invalid Object
    • Reject Multiplicity though in many cases, the possible additional component(s) will be too far away (>2") to affect the PSF subtraction
    • Reject Spectral Types (too different from your science target)
    • It can also be a good idea to select stars which are as bright as or brighter than your science target.

In some cases (away from the Galactic plane), the search will not return so many stars. Then one may want to relax some criteria and/or cross check with Simbad.

Figure 4. SearchCal query for a suitable PSF reference star for Beta Pictoris

Screen capture of a SearchCal query to look for a suitable PSF reference star for Beta Pictoris. In this case, Alpha Pictoris has previously been used as a PSF calibrator for many HST and ground-based program to subtract from Beta Pictoris. SearchCal shows that Alpha Pic is indeed the closest (~13º apart) A-type star that is brighter than Beta Pic.


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Published March 2, 2017