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Webb Telescope images provide new window into the universe

The universe was born in darkness 13.8 billion years ago, and even after the first stars and galaxies existed a few hundred million years later, they remained in darkness. Their bright light, stretched over time and the expanding universe, dimmed to the infrared, making them – and other clues to our beginnings – inaccessible to every eye and instrument.

So far. On Tuesday the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful space observatory yet built, presented a stunning slideshow of our previously unseen newborn universe. Ancient galaxies carpeted the skies like jewels on black velvet. Budding stars shining from deep within cumulus clouds of interstellar dust. Hints of water vapor in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet.

His sum is both a new view of the universe and a view of the universe as it once appeared new.

“He was always there,” said Jane Rigby, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, and the telescope’s project scientist for operations. “We just had to build a telescope to see what was there.”

The Webb Telescope — NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, 30 years and nearly $10 billion in the making — is the first to gain access to this realm of cosmic history, to study stars and galaxies, and to search for nearby, potentially habitable worlds. equipped for. It is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

“We’re looking for the first things to come out of the Big Bang,” said John Mather, the telescope’s senior project scientist.

President Biden offered a preview Monday afternoon as he offered NASA officials and astronomers the deepest image ever of the universe, a mark that will likely pass before weeks as more data pours in from NASA computers. Comes out.

The image of a distant star cluster called SMACS 0723 revealed the presence of still more distant galaxies scattered across the sky. The light from those galaxies, enhanced in visibility by the cluster’s gravitational field, originated 13 billion years ago.

To look out into space is to look into the past. Light travels continuously through the vacuum of space at 186,000 miles per second, or close to six trillion miles per year. Seeing a star 10 light years away means that it existed 10 years ago, when the light left its surface. The farther away a star or galaxy is, the older it is, making each telescope a sort of time machine.

Astronomers believe that the most distant, oldest stars may be the opposite of today’s stars. The first stars were composed of pure hydrogen and helium left over from the Big Bang, and they may have evolved into a mass far more massive than the Sun – and then quickly and violently collapsed into the kind of supermassive black hole that is now most massive. Populate the centers of galaxies.

The new photos were rolled out during a one-hour ceremony at the Goddard Space Flight Center, which was hosted by Michel Thaler, assistant director of the Center for Science Communications, with video stops around the world. A few miles away at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, an overflowing crowd of astronomers gleamed, ooh and aahed, flashing new images across the screen—evidence that their telescopes are working even better than expected. was being

An infrared skyscape showed Stephan’s Quintet, five galaxies packed improbably tightly in the constellation Pegasus. The four are so closely engaged in a gravity dance that they will eventually merge. Indeed, the image revealed a band of dust that was being heated as the two galaxies ripped stars from each other.

A view of the Southern Ring Nebula, the remains of an exploded star, reveals signs of complex carbon molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, floating in its midst. Such molecules drift through space, settling in clouds that then give rise to new stars, planets, asteroids – and whatever life may sprout later.

“Presumably, the formation of PAHs in these stars is a very important part of how life began,” said Bruce Bialik, an emeritus professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. “I’m bewildered.”

The most fascinating image was of the Carina Nebula, a massive, swirling cloud of dust that is home to a star nursery and some of the Milky Way’s brightest and explosive stars. Viewed in the infrared, the nebula looks like a rising, eroded coastal rock containing hundreds of stars that astronomers have never seen before.

“It took me a while to figure out what to say in this image,” said Amber Straughan, the telescope’s deputy project scientist, as she pointed to a craggy structure.

Dr. Straughan said she couldn’t help thinking about the scale of a star-filled nebula with its own planets.

“We humans are really connected to the universe,” she said. “We are made of the same stuff in this scenario.”

From astronomers and watch parties around the world, there was a similar relief and applause.

“This event blew me away,” said Alan Dressler, an astronomer at Carnegie Observatory who was instrumental in planning the telescope 30 years ago. “I don’t seem to be as upset as I thought.”

He continued: “Our understanding of the universe will increase as much as it did with Hubble, and that’s really saying something. We’re ready for a great adventure.”

The images and other data released Tuesday were chosen by a small team of imaging experts and public outreach experts for the images’ ability to show the new telescope’s range and power — and to knock the public’s socks off.

The results of the study at NASA’s Early Release Science Programs will be followed up over the next six months. Some of the results, including images of the galaxies shown by Mr Biden on Monday, will be available later this week. All the data collected during the testing of the telescope and its instruments will become available on Thursday.

Now that the images are out, “an astronomer will feed the frenzy!” Garth Illingworth, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and initiator of the telescope program four decades ago, wrote in an email.

Early release science programs aimed at ushering in the Webb era include studies of the solar system, galaxies, intergalactic space, massive black holes and the evolution of stars.

Jupiter and its myriad interesting satellites, such as Europa, the target of an upcoming NASA mission, will be a focus. Two other studies will be devoted to exoplanets, including the TRAPPIST-1 system, which lies just 40 light-years away, where seven planets orbit a dim red-dwarf star. Three of those planets are Earth-sized rocks orbiting in the habitable zone, where water can exist on the surface.

Just as the Hubble Space Telescope has defined astronomy for the past three decades, NASA hopes Webb will define the field for a new generation of researchers who eagerly await their own union with the universe .

it’s been a long time coming. What began as a next-generation space telescope evolved into an infrared telescope capable of sensing the heat from the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe.

Because the universe is expanding, those early stars and galaxies are fleeing Earth so quickly that their light shifts to longer, redder wavelengths, much as the sound from an ambulance siren shifts to a lower register as it does speed. Light from the most distant and early galaxies and stars, which was once blue, is now infrared “heat” radiation, invisible to the eye. So is the radiation from carbon, ozone and other molecules that are of keen interest to astronomers.

A preliminary planning committee concluded that the telescope would need to be at least four meters in diameter (Hubble’s diameter is only 2.4 meters) and highly sensitive to infrared radiation, and would cost $1 billion. NASA administrator Dan Goldin liked the idea but worried that the four-meter telescope would be too small to see the stars at first, so he increased the size to eight meters.

Doubling in size, however, the telescope will no longer fit on any existing rockets. This meant that the mirror of the telescope would have to be bent, and it would have to hoist itself into space. NASA eventually settled on a mirror 6.5 meters wide, which had seven times the light-collecting power of Hubble.

In addition, the telescope would need to be cooled to minus 380 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the telescope’s own heat from reflecting the faint rays from distant stars. (One instrument had to be even cooler, minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit, a few degrees above absolute zero.) This was accomplished by permanently parking the telescope behind a sunshade.

But all the challenges of developing and manufacturing the instrument remained the same. In 1990, NASA sent Hubble into orbit with a misshapen mirror; Still stifled by that embarrassment, the agency embarked on a lengthy and costly testing program for the new telescope. The price tag rose to $8 billion, and in 2011, Congress nearly canceled the project.

“The web turned out to be the perfect storm,” Dr. Dressler recalled. “The more expensive it got, the more important it was that it didn’t fail, and that made it even more expensive.”

During an initial test, the sun shield was torn. “When you work with a $10 billion telescope, there are no small problems,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science missions. “It’s hard to know what is boldface and what isn’t.”

According to Bill Ochs, who has been the telescope’s project manager since 2011, the Webb telescope represents a combined effort of about 20,000 engineers, astronomers, technicians and bureaucrats. It is now orbiting the Sun at a location called L2, where there are combined gravitational fields. The Sun and the Earth form a stable resting place. Its mirror, made of 18 gold-coated beryllium hexagons, suggests a sunflower floating on the blade of a giant shovel—the sunscreen that keeps binoculars cool and always pointed outward from our star.

All of Webb’s troubles disappeared on Christmas morning, when a flawless launch from French Guiana and lifted the telescope to hundreds of “single points of failure” left with twice the expected maneuvering fuel and a career prospect of 20 years. . science. The mirror also proved twice as good as expected at detecting the shortest wavelengths of light, increasing the telescope’s resolving power.

As the Goddard ceremony ended on Tuesday, Dr. Zurbuchen and Dr. Mather took the stage to congratulate and praise the team that had worked so long and well together. Dr. Mather said that he had never worried that the telescope would not be successful. “Though maybe I should have,” he said.

Dr. Zurbuchen retorted: “I get paid for worrying.”

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