Webb’s dazzling first images are just the start

As the first images of the Webb Telescope come out in the summer of 2022, our Deputy Director Nathalie Ouellette, who is also an Outreach Scientist for Webb in Canada, reflects on what this mission means to her and to a generation of young researchers.

Nathalie Ouellette, outreach scientist for the Webb Telescope in Canada, touring the Webb Telescope at the Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California in 2019. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

The birth of an astrophysicist

People often ask me how I became an astrophysicist. Like many of my colleagues, I fell in love with the wonders of the cosmos from an early age. However, being born and raised in Montreal, an urban center, by parents who didn’t really take us camping, I didn’t grow up with the benefit of dark night skies. I’ve had the occasional first-hand (or, perhaps, first-eye) encounter, like looking at Comet Hale Bop in 1997 or spotting Jupiter and its moons in a telescope from our front yard. Most of my amazement at space came from the images I saw in library books and TV documentaries that my parents, both engineers, encouraged me to peruse.

These books and documentaries were filled with incredible images of galaxies, nebulae and the planets of our solar system. I was only 2.5 years old when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched and 6 years old when its first servicing mission, which fixed flaws in its optics, was deployed. I grew up with Hubble and was just one of millions, if not billions, of people who fell in love with the mission and how it allowed us to see the Universe like never before.

I now know that at that time, behind the scenes, work was already beginning for the next great space observatory. The ‘Next Generation Space Telescope’, which will eventually be renamed the ‘James Webb Space Telescope’, was being developed to pick up where Hubble left off in terms of seeing further into the universe than ever before through seamless collaboration. precedent between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

I’ve only been a member of the Webb team for 4 years, and many of my colleagues have spent most if not all of their professional lives working on this mission. But I still need to pinch myself at the thought of being part of this incredible adventure whose seed was planted just when my passion for science and space was also taking shape! And, as the Outreach Scientist for the Webb Telescope in Canada, it’s my job to make sure that all of Canada feels like they’re part of this journey, too.

About Webb

An artist’s rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope (Credit: NASA).

While the Webb Telescope is often touted as Hubble’s successor, the two missions are actually quite complementary and have key differences. Of course, in the spirit of always pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery, Webb’s mirror has an area about 7 times larger than Hubble’s. This makes Webb the largest space telescope ever, with an 18-segment primary mirror 6.5 meters wide and a sunshade the size of a tennis court.

Webb is so big, in fact, that he had to be built as a collapsible observatory to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket that launched him into space. Its 14-day deployment en route to its final destination, Lagrange Point 2 located 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, is arguably one of the most complex technological maneuvers ever performed by humanity. And, thankfully, it went off without a hitch thanks to the many years of rigorous trial and testing Webb underwent while still on Earth!

Another key difference between Webb and Hubble is the type of light they observe. The Hubble telescope is most sensitive to the same light as human eyes: visible light. He can also see a little in the ultraviolet and very near infrared. Since one of Webb’s original scientific goals was to look further back in time at the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang, and since this light has been redshifted (a phenomenon in which light from an object distant is stretched into longer wavelengths due to the expanding Universe) from its original blue and ultraviolet light to infrared, Webb was designed to observe infrared light.

Fortunately, there are also a multitude of fascinating celestial objects such as planets (inside and beyond our solar system), cool stars and protoplanetary disks that glow in the infrared. Another benefit of observing in the infrared is how it interacts with cosmic dust and gas that are scattered throughout much of the cosmos. Near-infrared light can pierce this dust (while visible light is blocked by it), unlocking the secret to hidden processes like star birth. The dust and gas themselves glow in the mid-infrared.

The first six months of Webb’s mission, starting with its incredibly successful launch from French Guiana on December 25e 2021, went better than the team could have hoped for. This commissioning phase was an incredible demonstration of teamwork, scientific rigor and incredible engineering feats, including the alignment of the Webb mirror, the cooling of the observatory, as well as the calibration and testing of all its instruments.

Webb’s first images

An image of the star forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula, as observed by the NIRCam and MIRI instruments on the Webb Telescope. (Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)

The world was rewarded for its patience during Webb’s 6-month commissioning on July 12e 2022 with the release of the first high-resolution color images of the mission. The set of five main images (which were actually four photometric images and 1 spectrum) came with plenty of additional infographics and images that made the post all the more enticing. The goal of this first release was to show the potential of all of Webb’s instruments in many of their different modes while observing a range of different types of objects, from exoplanets to extremely distant galaxies. Another purpose was, of course, to inspire awe and wonder in all who saw the images. I sincerely believe that the release was a huge success on both fronts!

Images revealed included the first Webb Deep Field (over 7,000 galaxies, some appearing as they were 13.1 billion years ago), the Carina Nebula (an incredible landscape of cosmic cliffs showing the birth of stars ), the South Ring Nebula (a planetary nebula left over from the death of a star), and Stephan’s Quintet (a group of interacting and colliding galaxies).

A graph showing the atmospheric transmission spectrum of the exoplanet WASP-96b as collected by the Canadian instrument NIRISS on the Webb telescope. The bumps and ripples in the spectrum indicate a clear detection of water vapor in the exoplanet’s atmosphere. (Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)

I should particularly mention the atmospheric transmission spectrum released from exoplanet WASP-96b, a hot gas giant planet 1150 light-years away, taken by NIRISS, the Canadian instrument aboard Webb. This incredible dataset demonstrated the mind-boggling power, resolution and sensitivity of NIRISS in determining the atmospheric composition of distant exoplanets. In the case of WASP-96b, we found definite detection of water vapor and strong evidence of haze and clouds.

Although not a scientific instrument, Webb’s Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) ensures that the telescope is able to lock onto all of its celestial targets during each of its observations to produce the visuals of high quality we see. The FGS, which is Canada’s other contribution to the mission in addition to the NIRISS instrument, is therefore a mission critical element of which we can be proud.

Next steps

Of course, the first images of Webb are really only the beginning of the mission. The images broadcast represent only 5 days of observation at the telescope. With an estimated lifespan of 20 years, I can guarantee that Webb will enable countless scientific discoveries that will revolutionize the world of astronomy and our understanding of our place in the Universe. The first year of observations is already planned, and that includes many programs led by Canadian astronomers. But ultimately, we want everyone to make this telescope their own. Because Webb and other space astronomy missions like this aim to nurture our curiosity and wonder about the mysteries of the Universe. And the Universe belongs to all of us.

Webb’s first images
See and download the first images of Webb on the STScI site

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