After two decades and more than $10 billion, the most powerful telescope yet built will finally be making its splashy public debut Monday — with a little help from the president of the United States.
On Monday evening, U.S. President Joe Biden will release one of the first science images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), “arguably the most complex machine that humanity has ever built,” according to one of its creators.
Launched in late December, the Webb telescope is 100 times more powerful than its astronomy-altering predecessor, the Hubble, thanks primarily to a mirror that has 6.25 times the area. It’s designed to observe the celestial skies in infrared, not only allowing it to pierce the veils of cosmic dust that often obscure visible light, but better equipping it to see objects in the furthest reaches of the universe.
It’s spent the past six months travelling to its orbit 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, deploying, testing and calibrating its instruments. The picture to be released Monday, is one of the first five science images — the rest to be released Tuesday — selected to show off the new telescope’s astronomic observation chops.
“When you see the images, first of all, they’re just stunning, like very visually beautiful,” says Sarah Gallagher, science adviser to the Canadian Space Agency president, who’s already had a sneak peek.
“They have some of the elements that you’ve seen from Hubble with the richness of the structures and the details. But they’re really next-level because Webb is so much more sensitive. It’s beautiful, just exquisite imaging. It’ll really jump out at you.”
The five images to be released were selected not only to show off the capabilities of the new telescope, but also to highlight the four major themes of Webb telescope research, she says.
One is of an exoplanet, a gas giant like Jupiter, only about half the size. Another image will be looking across the furthest reaches of the universe to see galaxies in their earliest stages of development. Another will probe deeper into our own Milky Way to see how stars are formed. And yet another will be looking at what happens when those stars begin to die.
While those first science images to be released aren’t connected to any particular research, Gallagher says they’re already showing us things that we’ve never seen before.
“I have colleagues who are going to jump on these data the second that they’re available and download them and start working on them,” she says. “I expect there’s going to be papers that start being submitted within days with this new data. The astronomy community is definitely very excited.”
Biden’s late arrival on the Webb bandwagon should not detract from the veritable army that has spent the last two decades getting the telescope off the ground.
When the JWST launched on Christmas Day last year, it carried with it the hopes, dreams — and left behind the furrowed brows and chewed fingernails — of thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians from 14 countries and three space agencies: NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.
The release of that first image marks the completion of one of mankind’s most herculean tasks — that of conceptualizing, designing, manufacturing, testing, launching, deploying and calibrating an instrument that makes the famed Hubble telescope pale in comparison.
It’s now orbiting the Sun in the deep cold of space, some 1.5 million kilometres from this planet, four times further away from us than the moon, and far enough to minimize interference from the Earth and Sun.
But with the completion of that task, the work that the JWST was intended to do — the scientific work — has only just begun.
Researchers across the world are rubbing their hands together with glee at the thought of the what the telescope could produce.
When the research begins, thousands of astronomers will be using the Webb telescope to probe back in time to an era only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang itself, a time astronomers refer to as the Dark Age, when the first stars began to appear.
The light collected by the telescope will have been travelling toward it for more than 13 billion years, giving researchers a picture of what the universe looked like when that light began its journey.
“The Webb telescope is the most sophisticated, complex space science instrument that has ever been created,” says Gallagher. “And it works. It works beautifully. It works exactly as expected.”
“There have been people thinking about what this telescope is going to do for years. And the fact that it’s delivering, and in some areas delivering better than expected, means they’re going realize those expectations of what they were hoping to do.”
The first five science images
Carina Nebula: Nebulae are the stellar nurseries in which stars are born. Carina is one of the largest and brightest in the night skies, approximately 7,600 light-years away, in the constellation Carina, and home to many stars several more times massive than our sun. It’s also home to the most luminous star we know of in the Milky Way — the primary star of WR25, a binary star system. It’s about 2.4 million times brighter than our sun.
WASP-96 b: a giant, mostly gaseous planet nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth. It’s about half the mass of Jupiter, and it orbits its star every 3.4 days. The JWST will allow scientists to analyze the atmosphere of the planet, by looking at the spectrum of light from distant stars passing through it.
Southern Ring Nebula: Also called the “Eight-Burst” Nebula, it’s an expanding cloud of gas surrounding a dying star. It’s about 2,000 light-years from Earth and is about half a light-year in diameter. An analysis of some of the elements present in the outer layers of the nebula may give us a clue to some of the processes involved in the formation of new solar systems.
SMACS 0723: This is an area where the gravity of a cluster of galaxies in the foreground distorts space in such a way that they act like a lens, enabling astronomers to have a better view of objects in the background, objects that, because of their extreme distance, appear as they did in the earliest days of the universe. The process is called gravitational lensing.
Stephan’s Quintet: A grouping of five galaxies, about 290 million light-years away, in the constellation Pegasus. Four of the five galaxies are gravitationally bound to each other, resulting in a series of close encounters. The fifth galaxy is actually a foreground galaxy, about seven times closer to Earth than the rest. The cluster was first identified in the 1800s — it’s been studied extensively since.
Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph: The NIRISS, which observes infrared wavelengths, also includes a spectrograph, which allows astronomers to look at the atmospheres of planets, to determine whether there are traces of gases such as oxygen, carbon dioxide or methane — which might indicate the possibility that life might exist on those planets.
Fine Guidance Sensor: The FGS targets a series of stars as reference points and, measuring their positions 16 times per second, uses them to keep the telescope pointed at its target. Right now, it’s being used to help scientists calibrate the mirror segments.
It’s so accurate that it can detect the telescope being off target by the equivalent of the width of a human hair at a distance of a kilometre.
While it’s not an observational instrument per se, it is capable of capturing data images that help with its main function — keeping the Webb telescope pointed in exactly the right direction.
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