The scientific and astronomical community eagerly awaits Tuesday, July 12, to make ends meet. On this day the first pictures were taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is released! According to an previous statement by the agency, these images will include the deepest images of the Universe ever taken and spectra obtained from an exoplanet atmosphere. In another statement released yesterdaythe images were so beautiful that Thomas Zarbuchen – Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) – was almost moved to tears!
The James Webb space telescope is the most powerful and complex observatory ever deployed, not to mention the most expensive ($10 billion)! Due to the complex system of mirrors and advanced sunshade, the telescope had to be designed so that it could be folded (origami style) to fit in a payload tub and then unfolded once it reached space. To make sure everything would work, the telescope had to undergo rigorous testing, a process that caused several delays and cost overruns (a situation exacerbated by the COVID pandemic).
Since its launch on Christmas Day 2021, the observatory has successfully unfolded, putting its scientific instruments into service and reaching L2 Lagrange Point, where it will remain throughout its mission. It also successfully aligned all 18 of its segmented mirrors, which are arranged in a honeycomb configuration 6.5 meters (more than 21 feet) in diameter — nearly three times the size of Hubble’s primary mirror. Previously, NASA test images the JWST took a star 2,000 light-years from Earth toward the constellation the big Bear (HD84406).
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According to Zurbuchen, who saw the images during a Wednesday briefing with other NASA officials, the first-light images it captured offer a “new world view” of the cosmos. What it was like to see the first light footage at Wednesday’s press conference, Zarbuchen said†
“The images are now being made. There’s some amazing science in the can already, and some more to come as we go along. We’re collecting the history-making data. It is very difficult not to look at the universe in a new light and not just have a moment that is very personal. It’s an emotional moment when you suddenly see nature reveal some of its secrets, and I’d like you to imagine and look forward to it.”
At the press conference, NASA officials said the images and other data would contain the deepest field image of the Universe ever. The previous record holder was the image obtained as part of the Hubble ultra-deep fieldincluding 10,000 galaxies of different ages, colors, and distances toward the constellation Fornax† The 100 oldest galaxies in the image (shown below) appear deep red and are dated just 800 million years after the Big Bang, making them the most distant and oldest ever viewed.
The James Webb images peer even further into the cosmos, showing what galaxies looked like just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. These earliest galaxies were instrumental in expelling the “Cosmic Dark Ages”, a period when the universe was permeated by neutral hydrogen atoms and therefore invisible to modern instruments. Astronomers know what the universe looked like just before this period, thanks to the relic radiation from the Big Bang, which is visible to our instruments – the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).
As a result, astronomers have not been able to see what the earliest galaxies looked like since their formation coincides with the Dark Ages. But thanks to its advanced infrared imaging capabilities, James Webb can pierce the veil of “darkness” and see what galaxies originally looked like. This allows scientists to model and simulate the evolution of cosmic structures with much greater accuracy, which could also provide new insight into the role of dark matter and dark energy in cosmic evolution.
Another image will offer the audience something different that they have never seen before (what James Webb is ideally suited to provide). This image will include an exoplanet, as well as atmospheric spectral data obtained by its advanced suite of spectrographs† These instruments allow astronomers to observe chemical signatures of an exoplanet by observing how light is absorbed (and at what wavelengths) in the atmosphere. These signatures will reveal the composition of the atmosphere, which includes oxygen gas, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, the very things we associate with “habitability.”
Even more exciting, these same observations could reveal traces of methane gas, ammonia and other chemicals that indicate biological processes we associate with life (also known as “biosignatures”). Last but not least, the presence of chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons and others that we associate with industrial processes would be seen as indications of advanced life (aka “technosignatures”). In short, images of James Webb will allow astronomers to model the evolution of the cosmos, impose stricter restrictions on exoplanets that are ‘habitable’, and could even reveal that humanity is not alone in the universe.
There are many other things That James Webb will study during its primary science operations (which will last until 2028) and its ten-year mission (expected to be extended to 20 years). This includes the dust and gas that make up the interstellar medium (ISM), debris disks around young stars, emerging planetary systems, cooler objects such as M-type (red dwarf) stars and brown dwarfs, and the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
And it all starts with these “first-light” images, which NASA says will be releasing on July 12, starting at 10:30 a.m. EDT (8:30 a.m. PDT). According to NASA’s deputy administrator Pam Melroy, these initial images were also emotionally overwhelming for her. “What I saw moved me as a scientist, as an engineer and as a person,” she says said† While the rest of us will have to wait eight more days, the teasers we’ve received suggest that the years of delays, retests, and cost overruns will be totally worth it!
You can view the images by going to NASAs JWST mission page. As of the publication of this article, there are only 8 days, 19 hours and 12 minutes left!
Read further: ArsTechnica
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