Greenbelt, Maryland – Following a presidential reveal on Monday, NASA released more dramatic “first light” images of theTuesday, featuring interacting galaxies, the agony of a doomed star, and a stellar nursery where massive young suns are born, blazing with fierce solar winds that carve vast clouds of gas and dust.
Even to the untrained eye, the images transport the viewer far beyond the realm of the iconic, which has produced a steady stream of discoveries and spectacular images over the past three decades. For astronomers, Webb’s views are breathtaking.
“From the data that I’ve seen so far, from the work that we’ve seen going live, and then from this first week of science, yes, this is going to be groundbreaking,” said Jane Rigby, Webb operations project manager at Goddard. Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “These are incredible abilities that we’ve never had before.”
Program scientist Eric Smith described the first published images as the result of “training runs” with Webb’s four instruments. Even so, “we’re making discoveries and we haven’t even started trying yet. The promise of this telescope is incredible.”
Warmed up by pom-pom-waving cheerleaders chanting “JWST, JWST,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, the agency’s top executives, and a host of Webb’s enthusiastic engineers and scientists gathered in a auditorium in Goddard to collectively share the moment when the images were revealed, one at a time.
“In the words of the famous Carl Sagan, ‘somewhere, something amazing is waiting to be known,'” Nelson said. “I think those words are coming true.”
The first was the spectrum of starlight passing through the atmosphere of an exoplanet 1,150 light years from Earth, a world half the size of Jupiter which orbits its star closer than Mercury orbits the sun of the Earth. The spectrum shows the chemical fingerprint of water vapor in the planet’s hellish atmosphere.
Taking spectra of exoplanet atmospheres isn’t new, but Webb’s sharper infrared vision dramatically advances the state of the art, allowing more data to be collected in less time. Astronomers may one day be able to detect the effects of biological activity on planets in distant solar systems by studying compounds in their atmospheres.
No one promises such Webb achievements, but the ability to analyze exoplanet atmospheres with the world’s most powerful infrared telescope is a major step in that direction.
Next, a sweeping view of the South Ring Nebula, a half-light-year-long expanding cloud of gas and debris blasted by a central star nearing the end of its life as its core runs out of energy. nuclear fuel and that fusion turns into a halt. It is a fate that awaits the sun in about five billion years.
The Hubble Space Telescope’s earlier view of the Southern Ring Nebula was spectacular in itself, showing a huge ring-shaped cloud of smoke surrounding a bright inner star. But Webb’s view goes much further, showing not one but two stars at the heart of the nebula and much more detail in the structure of the expanding gas shells.
Then came a fascinating image of Stephan’s Quintet, a well-known collection of five galaxies in the constellation Pegasus 290 million light-years from Earth that was discovered in 1877, the first close grouping of galaxies to be detected.
Four of the five galaxies are gravitationally interacting spirals in a kind of slow-motion train wreck merging to eventually become a single huge elliptical galaxy.
Galaxy mergers are commonplace in the history of the universe, and studying the details of these collisions is one of Webb’s main goals. The image released on Tuesday resolves stars and clusters never before seen in galaxies and even captures light generated by debris flowing around a supermassive black hole.
Finally, the Webb team unveiled a stunning view showing a segment of the Carina Nebula, a vast star-forming region in the southern constellation of Carina some 7,600 light-years from Earth, four times larger than the most famous Orion Nebula.
Visible to the naked eye, 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 (astronomically) near future. . .
The part of the nebula shown on Tuesday is full of bright, massive young stars as well as remnants of supernova explosions marking the cataclysmic death of stars much more massive than the sun. Powerful solar winds blown by hot, young stars sculpt surrounding gas clouds into intricately textured structures.
The images released on Tuesday followed an initial release on Monday from the White House when President Biden revealed a razor-sharp “deep field” look at a cluster of distant galaxies with numerous arcs of light, the distorted views background galaxies magnified by the cluster’s combined gravity.
Looking further into space and time than ever before, just a few hundred million years from when the universe exploded 13.8 billion years ago, the image represents “a new window about the history of our universe,” Biden said. .
Taken together, the images are clear proof, if any, that Webb is finally ready to begin science operations six months after hisand years of technical glitches, management errors and billions in cost overruns.
“These releases represented five days of observing with this observatory,” said Randy Kimble, Webb project scientist at Goddard. “And they’re including something that’s a deeper infrared image than ever in history, deeper than the Hubble images that took weeks to acquire. It was done in half a day with Webb.”
In the weeks and months since Webb’s launch, scientists and engineers have deployed and precisely aligned the 18 segments that make up Webb’s 21.3-foot-wide mirror, deployed a giant sunshade to help to cool the optics to a few degrees from absolute zero and carefully checked and calibrated the observatory’s four instruments.
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which primarily observes light in the visible part of the spectrum, Webb is optimized to study longer wavelength infrared radiation, allowing it to capture light from the dawn of the universe. which has been stretched by the expansion of space itself over the past 13.8 billion years.
Capturing light from the first generation of stars and galaxies forming in the aftermath of the Big Bang is one of Webb’s primary goals.
But the telescope will also be used to tackle other unanswered questions, tracing the evolution of galaxies through time, how they grow and merge in cataclysmic collisions, the life cycles of stars from birth to death by supernova and the nature of exoplanets that are as common as grains of sand across the Milky Way.
The images released on Tuesday, along with the previous deep field, showcase these broad themes, convincingly demonstrating that Webb, the most expensive science probe ever built, is up to the task.
“I’m so thrilled and so relieved,” said John Mather, Nobel laureate and lead scientist of the Webb project. “It’s just impossible to say how hard it really was. We risked so much to say we’re going to do it, and it’s almost impossible. But we did it.”