By Joey Roulette and Steve Gorman
GREENBELT, Maryland (Reuters) – NASA on Tuesday lifted the curtain on billions of years of cosmic evolution with the first batch of photos from the largest and most powerful observatory ever launched into space, saying the bright images showed that the telescope exceeded expectations.
The first color, high-resolution images from the James Webb Space Telescope, designed to look farther than before with greater clarity at the dawn of the universe, have been hailed by NASA as a milestone marking a new era of astronomical exploration.
Nearly two decades in the making and built under contract for NASA by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp, the $9 billion infrared telescope was launched on December 25, 2021. It reached its destination in solar orbit nearly 1 million miles from Earth a month later.
With Webb fine-tuned after months of remotely aligning his mirrors and calibrating his instruments, scientists will embark on a competitively selected program exploring the evolution of galaxies, the life cycle of stars, the atmospheres of exoplanets distant planets and the moons of our outer solar system.
“We’re all blown away,” said Amber Straughn, Webb Project Assistant Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, among a panel of experts who briefed reporters after the big reveal.
The shouts and roars of a spirited “cheer team” welcomed some 300 scientists, telescope engineers, politicians and senior officials from NASA and its international partners to a packed auditorium in Goddard for the official unveiling.
“I didn’t realize I was coming to a pep rally,” NASA Administrator James Nelson said from the scene, enthused that “every image of Webb is a discovery.”
The event was simulcast to watch parties of astronomy enthusiasts around the world, from Bhopal, India, to Vancouver, British Columbia.
The first photos, which took weeks to render from the telescope’s raw data, were selected by NASA to show off Webb’s abilities and foreshadow future science missions.
The first crown image, previewed by US President Biden on Monday but displayed with greater fanfare on Tuesday, was a “deep field” photo of a distant galaxy cluster, SMACS 0723, revealing the most detailed glimpse of the early universe recorded to date.
At least one faint galaxy measured among the thousands in the image is nearly 95% as old as the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that sparked the expansion of the known universe about 13.8 years ago. billions of years, NASA said.
Among the other four Webb subjects who got their close-ups on Tuesday were two huge clouds of gas and dust blasted out into space by stellar explosions to form incubators for new stars – the Carina Nebula. and the South Ring Nebula, each thousands of light-years from Earth.
The collection also included new images of another cluster of galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet, first discovered in 1877, which encompasses several galaxies described by NASA as “locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters. “.
Along with the images, NASA presented Webb’s first spectrographic analysis of a Jupiter-sized exoplanet more than 1,100 light-years away – revealing the molecular signatures of filtered light passing through its atmosphere, including the presence of vapor of water. Scientists have raised the possibility of possibly detecting water on the surface of smaller, rockier terrestrial exoplanets in the future.
‘WORK OF ART’
Designed to see its subjects primarily in the infrared spectrum, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which operates primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.
The much larger light-gathering surface of Webb’s primary mirror—an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal—allows it to observe objects at greater distances, thus farther in time, than any other telescope. Its infrared optics allow Webb to detect a wider range of celestial objects and see through clouds of dust and gas that obscure light in the visible spectrum.
Webb’s five introductory targets were previously known to scientists, but NASA officials say early images of Webb prove they perform as intended, better than expected, while literally capturing his subjects in a fully new.
The image of the South Ring Nebula, for example, clearly showed that the dying stellar object at its center was a binary pair of stars in close orbit. New photos of the Carina Nebula have exposed never-before-seen outlines of its massive clouds.
“It’s a work of art that has been revealed by this telescope,” said Rene Doyon, principal investigator for the observatory’s near-infrared camera and spectrograph built in Canada. “It’s beyond my scientific mind.”
Image SMACS 0723 showed a 4.6 billion-year-old cluster of galaxies whose combined mass acts as a “gravitational lens”, warping space to dramatically amplify light from galaxies farther away behind it.
One of the oldest galaxies appearing in the “background” of the photo – a composite of images of different wavelengths of light – dates back around 13.1 billion years.
The jewel-like photo, according to NASA, offers the “most detailed view of the early universe” as well as the “deepest, sharpest infrared image of the distant cosmos” ever taken.
Underscoring the vastness of the universe, the thousands of galaxies in image SMACS 0723 appear in a tiny patch of sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone standing on earth.
The Webb Telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Greenbelt, Md.; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Nick Zieminski and Richard Chang)