After pulling the curtain on an image gallery like no other, NASA will soon present the first full-color images from the James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary instrument designed to look through the universe until the dawn of the universe.
This week’s highly anticipated disclosure of imagery and spectroscopic data from the newly operated observatory follows a six-month process of detecting various remote components, aligning mirrors and calibration instruments.
With Webb now finely tuned and fully focused, astronomers will embark on a competitively selected list of science projects to explore the evolution of galaxies, the life cycles of stars, and the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and moons of our outer solar system.
The first batch of images, which took weeks to process from raw telescope data, are expected to provide a compelling glimpse of what Webb will capture on the science missions ahead.
On Friday, NASA released a list of the five celestial bodies selected for its first presentation on Webb, designed by the US space agency Northrop Grumman Corp.
Among them are sedmans – gigantic clouds of gas and dust blasted into space by stellar explosions that form nurseries of new stars – and two galaxy clusters.
One of these, according to NASA, features objects in the foreground so massive that they act as “gravitational lenses,” an optical distortion of space that dramatically amplifies the light coming from behind them to expose even fainter objects further back in time. . How far back and what appeared on camera remains to be seen.
NASA will also present the first Webb spectroscopy of an exoplanet — roughly half the mass of Jupiter located more than 1,100 light-years away — to detect the molecular signals of filtered light passing through its atmosphere.
“Move me as a scientist… as a human being”
All five preliminary goals were already known to scientists. One of them, the group of galaxies 290 million light-years from Earth known as Stephan’s Quintet, was first discovered in 1877.
But NASA officials promise that Webbs’ images capture their subjects in a whole new light, quite literally.
“What I saw moved me as a scientist, as an engineer, and as a human being,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Milroy, who reviewed the images, told reporters during a press briefing on June 29.
US President Joe Biden will unveil an unidentified image of the group Monday evening at a White House news conference with NASA President Bill Nelson, the US space agency said on Sunday.
The rest will be released as previously scheduled live and webcast Tuesday from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, by NASA and collaborators with European and Canadian space agencies.
The $9 billion infrared telescope, the largest and most complex astronomical observatory ever sent into space, was launched on Christmas Day from French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America.
A month later, the 14,000-pound (6,350-kg) instrument reached its gravitational stand in heliocentric orbit, orbiting the sun along with Earth about a million miles from home.
Webb, which displays its subjects mainly in the infrared spectrum, is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits Earth from a distance of 340 miles (547 km) and operates primarily in optical and ultraviolet radiation. Violet. wavelengths.
The larger light-gathering surface of Webb’s primary mirror – an array of 18 hexagonal pieces of gold-plated beryllium metal – enables it to observe objects at greater distances, and thus in the past, than Hubble or any other telescope.
Its infrared sensitivity allows detection of light sources that were hidden in the visible spectrum by dust and gas.
Taken together, these features are expected to transform astronomy, providing a first glimpse into infant galaxies dating back only 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set the known expansion of the universe in motion an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.
Webb’s tools are also making it look for signs of potentially life-supporting atmospheres around dozens of newly documented plants orbiting distant stars and for observing worlds much closer to home, like Mars and the ice moon Titan.
Combined with a host of studies already laid out for Webb, the telescope’s most revolutionary results may be those yet to be predicted.
Such was the case in Hubble’s surprising discovery, through observations of distant supernovae, that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than decelerating, opening up a new field of astrophysics devoted to a mysterious phenomenon scientists call dark energy.