The Webb telescope just took the deepest picture of the universe ever

Within days, scientists will release an unprecedented photo of the universe, going deeper into the cosmos than ever before and revealing some of the oldest stars and galaxies.

The image is one of 10 to 20 photos taken from the James Webb Space Telescope, the preeminent airborne observatory, on July 12, NASA officials confirmed at a news conference on Wednesday. For the few scientists who got a taste of it, the new snapshots have inspired deep existential experiences and left some on the verge of tears, they said.

“It’s an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly reveal some of its secrets,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science missions. “It’s not an image. It’s a new worldview.”

The telescope launched from Earth about six months ago, on christmas morningand now revolves almost around the sun 1 million miles away† NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, a former astronaut, said this week that the team expects the telescope to work for a long time: There is enough fuel on board to support the research over the next 20 years.

Telescope alignment test photos have already demonstrated the unparalleled sharpness and clarity of the infrared telescope. But these upcoming images will be the first in color and also demonstrate Webb’s scientific capabilities.

The images and scientific data will be rolled out during a broadcast event from 10:30 a.m. ET on July 12 from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The public can watch live coverage on NASA TV and the agency’s website.

Taking pictures with this complex machine, equipped with four scientific instruments, is not like pointing a smartphone at the sky and clicking. It takes a few weeks to process piles of data before a final picture emerges.

“When you save the data, they don’t look like a beautiful color image. They’re almost nothing like anything,” said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “Only when you, as an expert, know what to look for, can you appreciate them.”

NASA officials also said they will present the first atmospheric study of a telescope planet outside this solar system, in what is known as an exoplanet spectrum. The light data gives astronomers detailed information about what kinds of molecules exist in an atmosphere.

Webb, a collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, will observe some of the oldest, faintest light sources in the universe. The powerful telescope will study a period less than 300 million years after the Big Bang, when many of the first stars and galaxies were born. Scientists will also use it to look into the atmospheres of other worlds. Discoveries of, for example, water and methane – the main ingredients of life – could be signs of possible habitability or biological activity.

Astronomers expect Webb to unleash a golden age in our understanding of the universe. This first crop of cosmic imaging targets was chosen to show the telescope at its full potential, while not undermining some of the sightings planned later in the year.

But NASA is tight-lipped about what else is to come. This is what we know so far.

If the Webb photo goes deeper than what humans have seen before, it should surpass the Hubble Space Telescope’s Ultra Deep Field survey.
Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope

What do they mean by the “deepest” photo yet?

If the Webb photo goes deeper than what humans have seen before, it must outperform the Hubble Space Telescope Ultra Deep Field Research, recorded about 20 years ago. The famously expansive image shows nearly 10,000 galaxies of various ages, sizes, shapes and colors.

In astronomy, looking further translates to observing the past, because light and other forms of radiation take longer to reach us. In Hubble’s deep field, the oldest visible galaxies date back to the first 800 million years after the Big Bang. that is an incredibly early period relative to the estimated age of the universe of 13.8 billion year.

But Webb was built to see an even earlier period, with a much larger primary mirror than Hubble – 21 feet in diameter vs just under 8 feet — and detecting invisible light at infrared wavelengths. In short, a lot of dust and gas in space obscures the view of extremely distant and inherently faint light sources, but infrared waves can penetrate the clouds. A Webb scientist said the telescope is so sensitive that it can detect the heat of a bumblebee on the moon.

“The original purpose of this mission was to see the first stars and galaxies,” said Eric Smith, program scientist at Webb, “not the first light of the universe, but to see the universe turn on the lights for the first time. ”

Exoplanet in transit

When exoplanets intersect in front of their parent star, the star’s light is filtered through that atmosphere.
Credit: ESA, NASA, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble) and STScI

What will this “exoplanet spectrum” tell us?

The Webb team will present the telescope’s first exoplanet spectruma study of the light passing through a planet’s atmosphere and revealing what molecules are in it.

Astronomers have found about 5,000 so-called exoplanets, worlds orbiting stars other than the sun, but statistically there should be exponentially more. The universe could have more than 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, according to The planetary society† If most stars have one or more planets around them, there could be on the order of “billions of trillions” of exoplanets.

Scientists can use Webb to study planet atmospheres† When exoplanets intersect in front of their parent star, the star’s light is filtered through that atmosphere. Molecules in the atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths of light or colors, so by splitting the star’s light into its basic parts — a rainbow — astronomers can detect which segments of light are missing to discern the molecular makeup of an atmosphere.

“It’s an emotional moment to see nature suddenly reveal some of its secrets.”

Knowing what’s in another planet’s atmosphere is important, scientists say. For example, the composition of Earth’s atmosphere changed when life arose on the planet, revealing carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Researchers believe that by studying atmospheres, they can determine whether other planets can harbor life or are hospitable.

While the researchers haven’t revealed which exoplanet they studied, it probably isn’t a rocky world like Earth. Gas giant exoplanets, similar in composition to Jupiter, are easier to analyzeso astronomers probably focused on one of them first.

The planet Jupiter

Some observations from the James Webb Space Telescope will focus on objects in the solar system, such as Jupiter and its moons.
Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO team via Getty Images

Are any of the photos within the solar system?

It’s not yet clear whether Webb’s first photo drop will feature images of neighboring planets or space objects.

The first images are expected to highlight the scientific themes that inspired the mission: information about the early Universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the life and death of stars, and the characteristics of other worlds.

By July 12, the Webb team will have conducted 120 hours of observations and collected five days of scientific data. Five days later, they will likely have doubled that output, said Jonathan Gardner, deputy senior project scientist at Webb.

“If we don’t see anything in our solar system by July 12, we will definitely see the planets very soon.”

“There is an ‘early release science program’ that focuses on the moons of Jupiter and Jupiter and the Jupiter system,” Gardner said, “so if we don’t see anything in our solar system by July 12, we will definitely see the planets very soon.” .”

That program, developed by the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Webb Advisory Committee, will focus on getting a lot of initial data for scientists so they can learn about the telescope’s capabilities and write better research proposals. This period covers the first five months of the observatory’s operations.

What are other possible image subjects for the Webb telescope?

While it’s not clear which other “wow” images will accompany that first photo drop, the Webb team has provided some clues about their agenda based on how they’ve allocated the scientific work observatory’s time.

Most of the time — about a third of the program — will be spent studying galaxies and the gas and dust that exist between them. The rest of the priorities:

  • 25% exoplanets and their origin

  • 20% life cycles of stars, focusing on how they are born and how they die

  • 10% galaxies with supermassive black holes at the center, such as the Milky Way

  • 5% dedicated to other planets and comets in Earth’s solar system

  • 5% or more dedicated to cosmology and the expansion of the universe

It’s fair to say that many, if not all, of the photos coming in release will be called “firsts” in astronomy.

“With this telescope,” Zurbuchen said, “it’s really hard not to break records.”

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