This article is based on previous reporting by Kenneth Chang, Dennis Overbye, Joshua Sokol and Carl Zimmer.
NASA on Tuesday released five images from the James Webb Space Telescope’s early work. The photographs shed light on the telescope’s great potential for unraveling the mysteries of deep space. Below are some of the things we have learned so far.
Binoculars work really, really well.
NASA’s experience with the Hubble Space Telescope sending back blurry images has shown that advanced scientific instruments sometimes didn’t work as intended. Astronauts made several trips to Hubble to repair it, but no such repair was possible for Webb, which is far from Earth visited by any human.
They did it brilliantly, as Jane Rigby, the telescope’s operations project scientist, explained during a news conference Tuesday.
“I had a very emotional reaction to ‘Oh my goodness, it works,'” she said, describing the first razor-sharp test image the telescope sent home. “And it works better than we thought.”
Or as hundreds of scientists put it in a paper that was published online Tuesday but had not yet been peer-reviewed, “The telescope and instrument suite have demonstrated sensitivity, stability, image quality and spectral range which are essential to transform our understanding of the universe through observations spanning from near-Earth asteroids to the most distant galaxies.”
Scientific research is already underway. Some 13 projects deemed to be early release science programs have been selected to mark the beginning of the web era. They cover a range of categories and include our solar system, galaxies and intergalactic space, giant black holes and the galaxies in which they reside as well as the evolution of stars.
“The science results are going to extend beyond here,” Dr. Rigby said.
We will look into the past of the universe more deeply than ever before.
President Biden on Monday presented an image created by the Webb telescope that NASA officials and astronomers hailed as one of the deepest images yet taken of the universe, a mark that may soon pass. As more data comes out of NASA computers.
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.
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.
We will uncover the atmospheres of distant planets.
The spectra for the Jupiter-sized exoplanet WASP-96b weren’t the most impressive image ever screened Tuesday—instead of mind-bending cosmic rocks, it showed the slopes of a chart as the planet passes in front of its star 1,120 Light years away. But when astronomers operating the Webb Telescope at the Space Science Telescope Institute in Baltimore saw it, they gasped for applause.
“I’m ready to share it with you,” said Nestor Espinoza, an astronomer there.
The planet had previously been studied from the ground and with Hubble. But the Webb telescope also collected evidence of water vapor, haze and some previously unseen clouds. Which surprised the scientists.
“I think we’ll be able to find planets that we think are interesting — you know, have good prospects for life,” said Megan Mansfield, an astronomer at the University of Arizona. “But we don’t necessarily recognize life right away.”
The relatively small size of these exoplanets has made them extremely difficult to study until now. The Webb telescope will allow astronomers to see these worlds more closely.
The space telescope is “the first major space observatory to take into account the study of exoplanet atmospheres in its design,” Dr. Mansfield said.
There are already some targets, such as TRAPPIST-1, a star with many planets in its habitable zone. “We’ll just have to wait for time for the story to unfold,” said Nicole Colon, the telescope’s deputy project scientist for exoplanet science.
We will discover the unexpected.
But the most striking image was of the Carina Nebula, a massive, swirling cloud of dust that is a star nursery and home to 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 Strawn, a deputy project scientist for the telescope, as she pointed to a craggy structure.
The picture also contained structures that scientists could not explain, such as a strange, curved feature.
“As always, there is room for the unexpected,” said Amaya Moro-Martin, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute who presented the image to her colleagues on Tuesday. “We don’t know what it is.”
Expect many more searches from the web – things never seen before, and that need clarification.
The telescope remains fragile.
For a spacecraft like the James Webb Space Telescope, it was inevitable that chunks of cosmic dust would collide with its mirrors. Still, it was an unwanted surprise to NASA officials that one of the telescope’s mirrors was damaged by a micrometeoroid strike in late May and the hit was larger than expected.
NASA officials said the distortion was barely noticeable and Webb’s performance still exceeded all of its requirements. Engineers also changed the position of the damaged mirror to cancel out part of the distortion.
Before the event was reported, four tiny micrometers had already hit the telescope.
“The biggest concern on our minds is just the microscopic meteorite atmosphere,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission.
Dr. Zurbuchen said NASA is evaluating flight options to increase the likelihood that any dust that hits the telescope hits the back of the mirror, not the front.