This article is based on previous reports by Kenneth Chang, Dennis Overbye, Joshua Sokol, and Carl Zimmer.
NASA on Tuesday released five images from the early work of the James Webb Space Telescope. The images highlighted the telescope’s great potential for exploring the mysteries of space. Below are some of the things we’ve learned so far.
The telescope works really well.
NASA’s experience with the Hubble Space Telescope sending back blurry images showed that advanced scientific instruments sometimes didn’t work as intended. Astronauts have made several trips to the Hubble to repair it, but no such repairs have been possible for the Webb, which is farther from Earth than any human has ever traveled.
They did it spectacularly, as Jane Rigby, the telescope’s operational project scientist, explained during a news conference on Tuesday.
“I had the very emotional reaction of, ‘Oh my God, it’s working,'” she said, describing the first crisp test images the telescope sent home. “And it’s working better than we thought.”
Or as hundreds of scientists put it in a paper published online on Tuesday but not yet peer-reviewed: “The telescope and instrument suite have demonstrated the sensitivity, stability, image quality and spectral range necessary to advance our understanding.” to alter the cosmos through observations ranging from near-Earth asteroids to the most distant galaxies.”
The scientific investigation is already underway. About 13 projects were classified as Early Release Science Programs and selected to kickstart the Webb era. They cover a range of categories and include our solar system, galaxies and intergalactic space, massive black holes and the galaxies they live in, and the evolution of stars.
“The scientific results will be published from here on out,” said Dr. Rigby.
We will look deeper than ever into the past of the universe.
President Biden on Monday unveiled an image from the Webb telescope that NASA officials and astronomers have called one of the deepest images of the cosmos, a mark likely to be surpassed soon as more data pours out of NASA’s computers.
The image of a distant star cluster called SMACS 0723 revealed the presence of even more distant galaxies scattered across the sky. The light from these galaxies, visualized by the cluster’s gravitational field, formed more than 13 billion years ago.
Astronomers suspect that the most distant, earliest stars could be different than the stars we see today. The first stars were made of pure hydrogen and helium left over from the Big Bang, and they could grow much more massive than the Sun — and then collapse rapidly and violently into supermassive black holes of the kind that populate the centers of most galaxies today.
We will reveal the atmospheres of distant planets.
The spectra of Jupiter-sized exoplanet WASP-96b weren’t the most stunning image to hit screens Tuesday – rather than startling cosmic cliffs, they showed slopes of a map recorded as the planet passed 1,120 blips in front of its star. years away. But when astronomers who operate the Webb Telescope at the Space Science Telescope Institute in Baltimore saw it, they gasped and applauded.
“I’m beyond excited to share this with you,” said Nestor Espinoza, an astronomer there.
The planet had previously been studied from the ground and with the Hubble. But the Webb telescope also picked up evidence of water vapour, haze and some previously invisible clouds. That surprised scientists.
“I think we’ll be able to find planets that we think are interesting — you know, good possibilities for life,” said Megan Mansfield, an astronomer at the University of Arizona. “But we won’t necessarily be able to identify life immediately.”
The relatively small size of these exoplanets has so far made them extremely difficult to study. The Webb Telescope will allow astronomers to take a closer look at these worlds.
The space telescope “is the first major space observatory to incorporate the study of the atmosphere of exoplanets into its design,” said Dr. Mansfield.
There are already some targets, like Trappist-1, a star that has several planets in its habitability zone. “We just have to wait for time to unveil the story,” said Knicole Colón, the telescope’s associate project scientist for exoplanet research.
We will discover the unexpected.
But the most striking image was the Carina Nebula, a vast, swirling dust cloud that is both a nursery and home to some of the most luminous and explosive stars in the Milky Way. Viewed in infrared, the nebula resembled a looming, eroded coastal cliff studded with hundreds of stars astronomers had never seen before.
“It took me a while to figure out what to call out in this image,” said Amber Straughn, an assistant project scientist for the telescope, as she pointed to a rugged structure.
The image also included structures that scientists couldn’t explain, like a strange, curved feature.
“As always, there’s room for the unexpected,” said Amaya Moro-Martin, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, who shared the image with colleagues there on Tuesday. “We have no idea what that is.”
Expect many more such discoveries from the Webb – things that have never been seen before and require explanation.
The telescope remains fragile.
With a spacecraft like the James Webb Space Telescope, it was inevitable that cosmic dust particles would hit its mirrors. Still, it came as an unwelcome surprise to NASA officials when they found that one of the telescope’s mirrors had been damaged by a micrometeorite impact in late May, and that the impact was larger than expected.
NASA officials said the distortion was barely noticeable and Webb’s performance still exceeded all of his requirements. The engineers also optimized the position of the damaged mirror to compensate for some of the distortion.
Before the incident was reported, four smaller micrometeorites had already hit the telescope.
“The biggest concern on our mind is just the environment of the micrometeorites,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s deputy administrator for scientific missions.
dr Zurbuchen said NASA is evaluating flight options to increase the likelihood that dust hitting the telescope will hit the back, rather than the front, of the mirrors.