Explained: 5 things learned from the first images of the Webb Telescope

NASA released five images of the early work of the James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday. The images highlighted the telescope’s great potential for probing the secrets of deep space. Below are some of the things we’ve learned so far.

The telescope works really, really well

NASA’s experience with the Hubble Space Telescope returning blurry images showed that advanced scientific instruments sometimes didn’t work as intended. Astronauts made several trips to Hubble to fix it, but no such fix was possible for the Webb, which is much further from Earth than any human has traveled.

After the anticipation and anguish of the launch and then the deployment of the telescope, its mirrors and the sun visor, the mission’s scientists then had to ensure the proper functioning of its scientific tools.

They did, in spectacular fashion, as Jane Rigby, project scientist for the telescope’s operation, explained at a press conference on Tuesday.

“I had the very emotional reaction of ‘Oh my God, it works,'” she said, describing the first razor-sharp test images the telescope sent home. “And it’s working better than we thought.”

Or as hundreds of scientists put it in a paper that appeared online Tuesday but has yet to be peer-reviewed, “The telescope and suite of instruments demonstrated the sensitivity, stability, the image quality and spectral range that are needed to transform our understanding of the cosmos through observations ranging from near-Earth asteroids to the most distant galaxies.

Scientific research is already underway. Some 13 projects were considered early broadcast science programs, chosen to revive the Webb era. They cover a range of categories and include our solar system, galaxies and intergalactic space, massive black holes and the galaxies they live in, and the evolution of stars.

“The scientific results are going to be released from now on,” Rigby said.

In an undated image provided by NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI, the South Ring Nebula in mid, left and near infrared. There are many more universes to see than there were before the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, and there is so much more to explain. (NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI via The New York Times)

We’ll see deeper than ever into the universe’s past

President Joe Biden on Monday presented an image taken by the Webb Telescope that NASA officials and astronomers hailed as one of the deepest images ever taken of the cosmos, a mark that will likely be surpassed as soon as more data is available. will spring from NASA computers.

The image of a distant star cluster called SMACS 0723 revealed the presence of even more distant galaxies strewn across the sky. The light from these galaxies, amplified in visibility by the cluster’s gravitational field, originated more than 13 billion years ago.

Astronomers theorize that the most distant and oldest stars may be different from the stars we see today. The first stars were composed of pure hydrogen and helium left over from the Big Bang, and they could grow much more massive than the sun – then quickly and violently collapse into supermassive black holes of the type that now populate the centers of the Earth. most galaxies.

In an undated image provided by NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI, the first deep-field image from the James Webb Space Telescope captured this star cluster, SMACS 0723. (NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI via The New York Times)

We will discover the atmospheres of distant planets

The spectrum of the Jupiter-sized exoplanet WASP-96b wasn’t the most impressive image shown on screens on Tuesday – rather than mind-bending cosmic cliffs, it showed the slopes of a graph recorded as the planet passed in front of its star 1,120 light-years away. But when astronomers who operate the Webb Telescope at the Space Science Telescope Institute in Baltimore saw it, they gasped and cheered.

“I’m excited to share this with you,” said Nestor Espinoza, an astronomer there.

The planet had previously been studied from the ground and with Hubble. But the Webb Telescope also detected evidence of unprecedented water vapor, haze and clouds. This surprised scientists.

Although WASP-96b is highly unlikely to harbor anything living, using the same techniques could reveal whether smaller rocky worlds orbiting other stars are habitable.

“I think we can find planets that we think are interesting – you know, good possibilities for life,” said Megan Mansfield, an astronomer at the University of Arizona. “But we won’t necessarily be able to identify life immediately.”

The relatively small size of these exoplanets has made them extremely difficult to study until now. The Webb Telescope will allow astronomers to take a closer look at these worlds.

The space telescope “is the first major space observatory to factor the study of exoplanet atmospheres into its design,” Mansfield said.

There are already a few targets in mind, such as Trappist-1, a star that has several planets in its habitable zone. “We’ll just have to wait for the time to reveal the story,” said Knicole Colón, the telescope’s assistant project scientist for exoplanet science.

A James Webb Space Telescope photo provided by NASA shows the South Ring Nebula, a dying star, expelling a cloud of colorful gas that will eventually expand and fade into the space between stars. (NASA via New York Times)

We will discover the unexpected

The Webb presentation gave us jaw-dropping images of the Southern Ring Nebula, a sphere of gas and dust spewed out by a dying star, and Stephan’s Quintet, a cluster of galaxies millions of years old. -light.

But the most striking image was of the Carina Nebula, a vast, swirling cloud of dust that is both a star nursery and home to some of the most luminous and explosive stars in the Milky Way. Viewed in infrared, the nebula looked like an eroded, looming coastal cliff dotted with hundreds of stars astronomers had never seen before.

“It took me a while to figure out what to call in this image,” said Amber Straughn, assistant project scientist for the telescope, pointing to a steep structure.

The image also contained structures that scientists could not explain, such as a strange curved feature.

“As always, there’s room for the unexpected,” said Amaya Moro-Martin, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, who showed the image to her colleagues on Tuesday. “We have no idea what it is.”

Expect many more such discoveries from the Webb – things never seen before and in need of explanation.

A James Webb Space Telescope photo provided by NASA shows the Carina Nebula, showing the early stages of star formation. (NASA via New York Times)

The telescope remains fragile

For a spacecraft like the James Webb Space Telescope, bits of cosmic dust were bound to hit its mirrors. Still, it came as an unpleasant surprise to NASA officials to discover that one of the telescope’s mirrors had been damaged by a micrometeoroid strike in late May, and the hit was larger than expected.

NASA officials said the distortion was barely noticeable and Webb’s performance still exceeded all of his requirements. Engineers also changed the position of the damaged mirror to undo some of the distortion.

Before the incident was reported, four smaller micrometeoroids had already hit the telescope.

“The biggest concern we have is simply the micrometeorite environment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science missions.

Zurbuchen said NASA is evaluating flight options to increase the likelihood that any dust that hits the telescope hits the back, not the front of the mirrors.

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