Three and a half decades of nearly insurmountable technical and financial hurdles paid off in all their glory when NASA this week unveiled its first public images and spectroscopic data of the James Webb Space Telescope†
The White House shook the astronomical world Monday night when it previewed the first image: an expanse of galaxies in one of the universe’s deepest astronomical observations. On Tuesday, an international lineup of project leaders and mission partners revealed even more breathtaking cosmic images in a livestreamed event from the Goddard Space Flight Center in the Green Belt, Maryland. They include massive galactic clusters and nebulae in kaleidoscopic colors and unprecedented detail.
One image offered a stunning spectral view of a Jupiter-like exoplanet, whose atmosphere seemed to reveal the existence of water vapor. Other Technicolor images showed how the telescope is able to penetrate the cosmic dust vortices to reveal the formation of new stars, typography of dust clouds, temperature swings and molecular variations – abilities that its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope† Scientists were stunned by the brilliance of the first images and what they can reveal about the nature of the universe. NASA plans to release test images of Jupiter and its moons on Thursday. And they emphasize that this is just the beginning.
“These are things I never dreamed we’d be able to see,” Goddard director Dennis Andrucyk gushed with dizzying excitement during Tuesday’s event.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson added: “Eventually we will look back 13.5 billion years, a few million after the Big Bang — that’s the threshold we’re crossing. We’re defining the questions we don’t even know how to ask yet.”
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris hailed the mission, which involved 20,000 scientists and engineers from 24 countries, as a shining example of international cooperation and one of humanity’s greatest engineering achievements.
“Now we are entering a new phase of scientific discovery, building on Hubble’s legacy,” Harris said. “The James Webb Space Telescope allows us to look deeper into space than ever before and in stunning clarity. It will enhance our knowledge of the origin of our universe, our solar system and possibly life itself.”
The release of the images marks the beginning of the mission’s scientific goals: to better understand how galaxies, stars and planets formed over time and whether planets orbiting other stars can provide conditions to support life. From orbit one million miles outside Earth, the $9.7 billion space observatory will trace infrared light from the formation of the first stars and galaxies 13.5 billion years ago, some 200 million years after Earth. the big bang, capture and analyze. It is 100 times more powerful than Hubble, which has been able to capture light from distant galaxies that shone 800 million years after the Big Bang.
Closer to home, the four instruments on board will examine the atmospheres of rocky planets like ours orbiting nearby stars to determine their fitness for life, as well as the composition of our solar system’s planets. NASA added this goal after discovering the first exoplanets in 1992, six years after the telescope was designed; today it is more than confirmed 5,000 exoplanets†
The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the JWST’s mission operations center, has already allocated telescope time to teams through a competitive process that attracted more than 1,000 proposals from 44 countries for the first year of sightings. Thanks to a precise launch and a precise trajectory, it has reserved enough fuel on board to support 20 years of research, double the expected mission duration, which will allow for more in-depth science than previously expected.
Astronomer Garth Illingworth, the last remaining original Webb architect still working on the mission, said its capabilities exceeded the developers’ wildest expectations when they began brainstorming about the telescope in 1986.
“Every time I see these images, I’m more blown away,” he said londonbusinessblog.com† “The Webb is Hubble on steroids. Astronomers will work on these images for centuries to come. There is such incredible detail, depth and information spread across all these different instruments. This is just a few days observation; we have a year to spare.”
A tough journey
The telescope was finally launched last Christmas after a 35-year battle against all odds through technological mishaps, political infighting, escalating budgets, near-cancellations, and a pandemic. A month later, it reached its top position in orbit to L2 (the second Lagrangian point), where the combined gravitational pull of the Earth and the Sun allows the observatory to move around the Sun with the Earth as it points its mirror out to view the universe.
The next six months saw NASA align the telescope’s 18 hexagonal mirrors and calibrate the instruments, teasing the progress underway. It announced its first targets last week, while keeping the details of the case insanely tight. “The CIA would be proud,” Illingworth joked.
Scientists took the pictures of well-studied targets — shrunk from a short list of 70 for their beauty and ability to demonstrate Webb capabilities — in invisible infrared for a few days in late June. A team of 30 then translated that data into visible colors and cleaned it up at the pixel level. The results left them speechless.
“It’s an emotional moment when you suddenly see nature reveal some of its secrets,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s mission science directorate, said during a conference call. June 29 press conference, comparing it to the overwhelm he felt when a graduating student made a discovery at 2 a.m. “It’s not an image. It’s a new worldview.”
JWST operations project scientist Jane Rigby was overwhelmed. “I went and had an ugly cry,” she said on Tuesday press conference after the event† “It was a combination of getting dizzy in the room, looking at the data, then going and sobbing a little because it works.”
Webb’s first targets
Representatives of NASA, its mission partners to the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency, and STScI issued five years to decide which topics to review and reveal first. “There’s a long history of looking at a wide variety of objects with Hubble and so we have a good idea of what would be spectacular,” Illingworth said.
The image released Monday night, SMACS 0723, shows an area where massive galaxies magnify and distort the light from objects behind them, allowing deep views into distant and faint galaxy clusters. The onslaught of colorful galaxies represents a point in the universe the size of a grain of sand from Earth’s vantage point. Although the objects in the foreground are 4.6 billion light-years away, the gravitational forces of the galaxies and dark matter bend the light of objects from behind, allowing for the illusory appearance of galaxies more than 13 billion light-years away. Seeing how galaxies evolve over time may also provide clues to the role dark matter plays.
The Webb image of the Carina Nebula, an interstellar cloud of gas 7,600 light-years away, reveals the processes of star formation, stellar nurseries and individual stars previously obscured, as well as a landscape of “cosmic cliffs” and valleys that enhance the Webb’s ability to peering through cosmic dust.
His view of the Southern Ring Nebula shows a dying star’s final act through the pattern of gas and dust it expels. The star is nearly half a light-year across and about 2,500 light-years from Earth and locked in orbit with a brighter one. De Webb reveals that the fainter star is shrouded in dust, while the spectrograph is able to decipher the molecules present.
Stephan’s Quintet’s image is a visual grouping of five galaxies ranging from 40 to 290 million light-years away in the Pegasus constellation, which are repeatedly close together. Such close-knit groups may have been more common in the early Universe. Describing their interactions with images so accurately—more than 150 million pixels and made up of nearly 1,000 individual files—can provide new insights into how galaxies evolved.
An image provided a spectral breakdown of the atmosphere of WASP-96b, a giant gas planet 1150 light-years away that is half the mass of Jupiter and orbits its star every 3.4 days. Instruments on the spacecraft determine the chemical makeup of exoplanet atmospheres by measuring infrared light fluctuations from parent stars as their planets intersect in front of them. The wavelengths of change correspond to different elements. Although this world is too hot for life, chemical compositions can provide clues as to which exoplanets may be habitable for humans.
Scientists are excited to dig in and start exploring. “These are practice runs,” says JWST program scientist Eric Smith. “We’re already making discoveries and haven’t really started trying yet.”