Astronomers and space fans have been waiting for years for this moment: the James Webb Space Telescope team has finally released a handful of amazing photos, a tempting teaser of what’s to come.
NASA’s latest flagship space telescope, developed in collaboration with the European and Canadian space agencies, follows in the footsteps of Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra. The first collection of spectacular images of nebulae and distant galaxies, as well as a spectrum of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, highlights exactly what the telescope really can do.
Even the Biden administration joined the enthusiasm and praised the Webb team and release of one image Monday, a day too early. “This telescope is one of humanity’s great engineering achievements, and the images we will see today are a testament to the amazing work done by the thousands of workers across our nation who have dedicated years to this project,” he said. Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House briefing.
“It’s a new window into the history of our universe, and today we get a glimpse of the first light shining through that window,” said President Joe Biden at the same event. He then presented an image of a cluster of galaxies in living detail, a cosmic structure so massive that it bends light, and acts as a lens to study even more distant objects from the early universe.
“This image is remarkable because of the number of galaxies you see, and it’s not the deepest that Webb is capable of, so we’ll see even more. This is definitely hors d’oeuvres, and the main course will come out. over the coming months and years, ”says Jonathan Lunine, a Cornell University astrobiologist on the JWST team.
The mission did not get off to an easy start: the nearly $ 10 billion project exceeded its budget and endured many years of delays. And the name of the telescope has continued to be a source of criticism; its namesake, James Webb, allegedly enforced homophobic policies while leading NASA in the 1960s. (Many astronomers prefer to refer to the telescope simply by its acronym: JWST.)
After the JWST was launched last Christmas, researchers moved it into place and began about six months of detailed work setting up and testing the telescope’s instruments, which include sensitive near- and mid-infrared cameras, as well as spectrographs that scatter the measured light into its component wavelengths. Now this work is bearing fruit as exquisite images arrive, enabling astronomers to begin their scientific analysis.
The new images, released Tuesday, give a foretaste of what scientists can achieve with the powerful telescope. Research programs will use these images to measure the rate of expansion of the universe, study the first galaxies that gather, and investigate what exoplanets are made of. As science programs unfold over the next few months, a library of images will begin to gather on NASA’s public JWST website, Lunine said.
Here are a few of the new images that NASA is releasing as part of a presentation this morning. WIRED continues to add images as they are released.
A massive Galaxy cluster
This image of the galaxy cluster known as SMACS 0723 reveals thousands of galaxies in the distant universe, in an area of the sky now called Webb’s first deep field. It was taken with JWST’s near-infrared camera, NIRCam, which shows the cluster as it looked about 4.6 billion years ago. It acts as a gravitational lens that bends the light and brings weaker and even more distant objects into focus.
A spectrum of a giant exoplanet
JWST also comes with a spectrograph that can examine the contents of the planets’ atmospheres. WASP-96 is a gas giant about half the size of Jupiter and is about 1,150 light-years away. It orbits its star every 3.4 days. JWST is able to deduce the presence of clouds and haze around the planet.
The fog of a dying star
This image shows the spectacular Southern Ring Nebula in near- and medium-infrared wavelengths: a dying star that emits waves of clouds of gas and dust that could later become the material of new stars. Many of Hubble’s now iconic images were also of nebulae, such as the Crab Nebula and the Horsehead Nebula.
A compact group of galaxies
This image of a close grouping of five galaxies known as Stephan’s quintet shows in detail the first compact galaxy group ever discovered. Such dense galaxies are locked in a cosmic dance, where they often brush against each other, twisting each other and pulling each other apart, as can be seen by spiral galaxies with elongated arms.