July 10 (Reuters) – Pulling back the curtain on a photo gallery like no other, NASA will soon present the first color images of its James Webb Space Telescope, a groundbreaking device designed to peer across the cosmos to the Earth. dawn of the universe.
The highly anticipated July 12 unveiling of images and spectroscopic data from the newly operational observatory follows a six-month process of remotely deploying various components, aligning its mirrors and calibrating instruments.
With Webb now finely tuned and fully focused, astronomers will embark on a competitively selected slate of science projects exploring the evolution of galaxies, the life cycles of stars, the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, and the moons of our solar system. external.
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The first batch of photos, which took weeks to process from the telescope’s raw data, should offer a compelling glimpse of what Webb will capture on future science missions.
NASA on Friday released a list of five celestial subjects chosen for its showcase debut of Webb, built for the US space agency by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N).
Among them are two nebulae – huge clouds of gas and dust thrown into space by stellar explosions that form nurseries for new stars – and two sets of galaxy clusters.
One, according to NASA, features objects in the foreground so massive that they act as “gravitational lenses”, a visual distortion of space that greatly magnifies light coming from behind to expose still objects. weaker further and further in time. . How far and what appeared on camera remains to be seen.
NASA will also release Webb’s first spectrographic analysis of an exoplanet, revealing the molecular signatures of patterns of filtered light passing through its atmosphere. The exoplanet in this case, about half the mass of Jupiter, is over 1,100 light-years away. A light year is the distance light travels in one year – 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).
“CHICKED ME AS A SCIENTIST…AS A HUMAN BEING”
Webb’s five introductory targets were already known to scientists. One of them, the group of galaxies 290 million light-years from Earth known as Stephan’s Quintet, was first discovered in 1877.
But NASA officials promise that Webb’s images capture his subjects in an entirely new light, literally.
“What I saw moved me as a scientist, as an engineer and as a human being,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, who reviewed the images, told reporters. during a press briefing on June 29.
Klaus Pontoppidan, a Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where mission control engineers operate the telescope, promised that the first images would “produce a long-awaited ‘wow’ for astronomers and the public.”
The $9 billion infrared telescope, the largest and most complex astronomical observatory ever sent into space, was launched on Christmas Day from French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. South.
A month later, the 14,000-pound (6,350 kg) instrument reached its gravitational parking spot in solar orbit, circling the sun in tandem with Earth nearly a million miles from home. Read more
Webb, which sees its subjects primarily in the infrared spectrum, is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits Earth at a distance of 340 miles (547 km) and operates primarily at optical and ultraviolet. wavelengths.
The larger light-gathering surface of Webb’s primary mirror – an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal – allows it to observe objects at greater distances, and therefore further back in time, than Hubble. or any other telescope.
Its infrared sensitivity allows it to detect light sources that would otherwise be hidden in the visible spectrum by dust and gases.
Together, these features are set to transform astronomy, offering the first glimpse of fledgling galaxies dating to just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that sparked the known universe’s expansion il about 13.8 billion years ago.
Webb’s instruments also make it ideal for searching for signs of potentially vital atmospheres around dozens of newly documented plants orbiting distant stars and for observing worlds much closer to home, such as Mars and Titan, the icy moon of Saturn.
Along with a slew of studies already planned for Webb, the telescope’s most groundbreaking discoveries may turn out to be those not yet anticipated.
Such was the case in Hubble’s startling discovery, through observations of distant supernovae, that the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing down, opening up a new field of astrophysics devoted to a mysterious phenomenon. what scientists call dark energy.
The Webb Telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies.
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Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Lisa Shumaker
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