President Biden will unveil the first color image of the James Webb Space Telescope at the White House on Monday, heralding the end of testing and verification and the start of science operations by the world’s most powerful space observatory.
“We’re going to give humanity a new vision of the cosmos, and it’s a vision we’ve never seen before,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who will join Biden in the White House, told reporters. , during a preliminary briefing.
“One of these images…is the most profound image of our universe that has ever been taken,” he said. “And we’re only beginning to understand what Webb can and will do.”
NASA plans to release additional “first light” images on Tuesday, photos designed to show Webb’s ability to capture light from the first generation of stars and galaxies; trace the details of stellar evolution, from star birth to supernova death; and to study the chemical composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets.
Over the past 30 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has become one of the mostin astronomical history, helping astronomers determine the age of the universe, confirming the presence of supermassive black holes, capturing the deepest views of the cosmos ever collected, and providing class-leading images of planets in Earth’s solar system .
But Webb, operating a few degrees above absolute zero behind a tennis-court-sized sun visor, promises to push the limits of human knowledge even further with a 21.3-foot segmented primary mirror. wide capable of detecting weak and stretched infrared. light of the time when the stars began to “light up” following the Big Bang.
Webb is parked in a nearly a million miles from Earth. Over the past six months, engineers and scientists have worked through a complex series of deployments, activations and verifications, refining the telescope’s focus and optimizing the performance of its four science instruments.
The first images released on Monday and Tuesday, selected by an international team of astronomers, will “demonstrate to the world that Webb is, in fact, ready for science, and that he is producing excellent and spectacular results”, said Klaus Pontoppidan , Webb project scientist. at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
“And it’s also to highlight the breadth, the breadth of science that can be done with Webb and to highlight the four scientific instruments,” he added. “And last but not least, to celebrate the start of normal science operations.”
The targets of Webb’s first public images include:
- The Carina Nebula: A vast region of star formation in the constellation Carina some 7,600 light-years from Earth, four times larger than the Orion Nebula. The Carina Nebula is home to the most luminous star known in the Milky Way as well as the Eta Carinae binary system, which includes a massive sun that is expected to explode in a supernova explosion in the near future (astronomically speaking).
- South Ring Nebula: An expanding cloud of gas half a light-year in diameter that was ejected from a dying star. Relatively low-mass stars like Earth’s sun will end their lives blowing off their outer layers, forming “planetary nebulae” as their cores slowly shrink and cool.
- Stephen’s Quintet: A collection of five galaxies in the constellation Pegasus 290 million light-years from Earth that was discovered in 1877, the first compact grouping of galaxies to be detected. Four of the five galaxies interact gravitationally in a slow-motion merger.
- WASP-96b: An unusual cloudless exoplanet 1,150 light-years away that’s about half the size of Jupiter, orbiting its sun every 3.4 days. By spectroscopically analyzing the light from the parent star as it passes through the exoplanet’s atmosphere on its way to Earth, astronomers can tease out details about its chemical composition.
- SMACS J0723.3-7327: The combined gravity of countless stars in huge galaxy clusters like this can act as a powerful lens if the alignment is perfect, magnifying light from more distant objects in the back -plan to provide a deeper look back through space and time than would otherwise be possible.
“The first images will include observations that span the range of Webb science themes,” Pontoppidan said. “From the early universe, the deepest infrared view of the cosmos to date. We will also see an example of how galaxies interact and grow, and how these cataclysmic collisions between galaxies drive the process of star formation.
“We will see some examples of the life cycle of stars, from star birth, where Webb can reveal new, young stars emerging from their natal cloud of gas and dust, to star death, like a dying star seeding the galaxy with new elements and dust that may one day become part of new planetary systems.”
Finally, he said, the team will show the first chemical fingerprints of an exoplanet’s atmosphere.
One of the most amazing images from the Hubble Space Telescope was its first “deep field“look at a tiny patch of seemingly empty sky over a 10-day period in 1995. To the amazement of professionals and the public alike, this long-exposure image revealed more than 3,000 galaxies of all shapes, sizes and ages, some of among them the oldest, the most distant ever seen.
Hubble’s subsequent deep fields pushed back even further in time, detecting the faint light of galaxies that shone about 500 million years after the Big Bang. How stars formed and organized so quickly into galactic structures remains a mystery, as does the development of supermassive black holes at their cores.
Webb’s four instruments are expected to push the boundaries even closer to the start of galaxy formation. A test image from the Canadian-built telescope’s fine guidance sensor, an image that was not optimized for detecting extremely faint objects, nevertheless revealed thousands of galaxies.
Webb’s look at SMACS 0723 should demonstrate the observatory’s enormous reach.
“It’s really only the beginning, we’re only scratching the surface,” Pontoppidan said. “We have in the first images, a few days of sightings. Looking ahead, we have many years of sightings, so we can only imagine what it will be like.”