Goose Bumps Build for the Webb’s First Snapshots of the Universe
NASA picked five new images of scenes from around the universe that it hopes will knock the public’s socks off. Prepare to see astronomical records broken.
NASA will reveal the first image data from the new James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday morning. That will bring 30 years and $10 billion of planning, building, testing, and innovating to an end, followed by 6 months of terror, tension, and anticipation.
The images are a tour of the universe painted in colors that no human eye has ever seen – infrared or heat radiation rays. Infrared rays are blocked by the atmosphere and so can only be studied out space. They can, for example, penetrate the clouds of dust that surround the cosmic nurseries where stars are born, transforming them into transparent bubbles that reveal the baby stars nesting inside.
The first image will be revealed Monday at 5 p.m. by President Biden at the White House in an event streamed on NASA TV or the agency’s YouTube channel. NASA will then show other pictures at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday in a live video stream. You can sign up here for a reminder on your personal digital calendar to catch the first glimpse of them.
Only a small percentage of the world’s astronomers have seen what the Webb has seen. During a news conference in late June, NASA officials who were given an early look at the new images could only gush.
Pamela Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator and a former astronaut, said she could hardly contain herself.
“What I have seen moved me as a scientist, an engineer and a human being,” she said.
NASA’s associate administrator for science missions, Thomas Zurbuchen, compared viewing the images to the moment he realized, as a graduate student examining data at 2 a.m., that he had discovered something about the universe that no one else knew. It was surprisingly emotional, he said, to see nature give up its secrets.
Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, said, “We’re going to give humanity a new view of the cosmos,” and praised the telescope as “a good example of what government can do.”
Stars and galaxies captured by the James Webb Space Telescope using its Fine Guidance Sensor, which helps the telescope ensure precision when it aims at its targets. Webb scientists said this test image, made up of 72 exposures over 32 hours, was one of the deepest images of the universe ever taken.Credit…NASA, CSA, and FGS team
Webb is the world’s largest space telescope. Its purpose is to investigate the early days of the cosmos, when galaxies and stars were just congealing out of the fog of the Big Bang, reaching farther back in time and space than the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA anticipates the Webb will define astronomy for a new generation of astronomers who have been eagerly awaiting their own rendezvous with the universe, much as the Hubble did for the previous 30 years.
“We all know that Webb will absolutely blow Hubble out of the water by going deeper and finding the earliest galaxies,” said Garth Illingworth, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has used Hubble and other telescopes to search for distant primeval galaxies.
According to Bill Ochs, the telescope’s project manager, the telescope is the result of the combined efforts of around 20,000 engineers, astronomers, technicians, and bureaucrats. It is currently orbiting the sun at L2, a million miles from Earth, where the combined gravitational forces of the moon, Earth, and sun conspire to create a semi-stable resting point. Its mirror is made of 18 gold-coated beryllium hexagons and looks like a sunflower floating on the blade of a large shovel, which acts as a sunscreen, keeping the telescope cold and pointing ever outward from our own star.
The pictures to be revealed on Monday and Tuesday were cherry-picked by a small team of astronomers and science outreach experts to show off the capability of the new telescope and to knock the socks off the public. The photographs will be released on Tuesday at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, followed by a scientific presentation and a rush of professional astronomers to their computers to begin taking and analyzing their own data from scientific observations that began in June.
The telescope’s targets include the Southern Ring Nebula, a planetary nebula, which is an expanding cloud of gas, surrounding a dying star. It is 2,000 light-years away and half a light-year across.Credit…Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA, Donald Waid
The Carina Nebula, one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, located approximately 7,600 light-years away, is a nursery for new stars.Credit…NASA, ESA, N. Smith, and The Hubble Heritage Team
NASA released a list of the five subjects of the photographs on Friday. Among them are familiar faces to amateur and professional astronomers, who can now see them in new infrared raiments.
There’s the Southern Ring Nebula, a shell of gas blasted from a dying star some 2,000 light-years away, and the Carina Nebula, a massive swirling expanse of gas and stars that includes some of the Milky Way’s most massive and potentially explosive star systems.
Yet another familiar astronomical scene is Stephan’s Quintet, a tight cluster of galaxies, two of which are in the act of merging, about 290 million light-years from here in the constellation Pegasus.
SMACS 0723, another target, is an area where massive foreground galaxies magnify and distort the light of objects behind them, allowing deep views into very distant and intrinsically faint galaxy clusters.Credit…STScI
Sparkly spiders. Stephan’s Quintet, one of the first compact galaxy groups ever observed, in 1877, is 290 million light-years away. The bluish galaxy in the foreground is only 40 million light-years away.Credit…NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
The scientists will also publish a detailed spectrum of WASP-96b, a gas giant half the size of Jupiter that orbits a star 1,150 light-years away every 3.4 days. It is far too hot and large to support life, yet such a spectrum could tell what is in that world’s atmosphere.
Finally, but not least, is a swath of southern sky evocatively called SMACS 0723. It is an area that Hubble and other telescopes frequently visit, and it contains a massive cluster of galaxies whose gravitational field serves as a lens, magnifying and making visible light from galaxies behind it and even further back in time.
According to Dr. Zurbuchen, this image provides the most thorough look yet into the past of our cosmos, depicting galaxies emerging from the fog of creation as sparks in the night almost 14 billion years ago. Later photos, he added, would very certainly go back even further.
“With this telescope it’s really hard not to break records,” Dr. Zurbuchen said.