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The James Webb Space Telescope has taken the deepest picture in the universe

In a few days, scientists will release an unprecedented picture of the universe, reaching deeper into the cosmos than ever before and revealing some of the oldest stars and galaxies.

The image is one of 10 to 20 photos that will come from the James Webb Space Telescope, the quintessential observatory in the sky, on July 12, NASA officials confirmed at a press conference on Wednesday. For the few scientists who saw a glimpse, the new snapshots inspired deep existential experiences and left some on the verge of tears, they said.

“It’s a moving moment to see nature suddenly reveal some of its secrets,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for Science Missions. “It’s not an image. It’s a new vision of the world.”


NASA has unexpectedly revealed an image of the Webb Telescope’s ‘first light’

The telescope was launched from Earth about six months ago on Christmas morning and now orbits the sun nearly a million miles away. NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, a former astronaut, said this week that the team expects the telescope to operate for a long time: it has enough fuel on board to sustain research for the next 20 coming years.

Telescope alignment test images have already shown the infrared telescope’s unparalleled sharpness and clarity. But these upcoming images will be the first in color and will also demonstrate Webb’s scientific abilities.

The images and science data will be deployed in an event broadcast from 10:30 a.m. ET on July 12 from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The public can watch live coverage on NASA TV and on the agency’s website.

Taking photos with this complex machine, equipped with four scientific instruments, is not like pointing a smartphone at the sky and clicking. It takes a few weeks of processing reams of data for a final image to emerge.

“When you get the data, it looks nothing like a nice color image. It looks almost like nothing at all,” said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “Only when you know, as an expert, what to look for can you appreciate them.”

NASA officials also said they would present the telescope’s first atmospheric study of a planet outside this solar system, in what is called an exoplanet spectrum. Luminous data provides astronomers with detailed information about the type of molecules that exist in an atmosphere.

Webb, a collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, will observe some of the oldest and faintest lights in the universe. The powerful telescope will study a period of less than 300 million years after the Big Bang, when many of the first stars and galaxies were born. Scientists will also use it to peer into the atmospheres of other worlds. Findings of water and methane, for example – the main ingredients of life – could be signs of potential habitability or biological activity.

Astronomers predict that Webb will usher in a golden age in our understanding of the universe. This first crop of cosmic image targets was chosen to show the telescope to its full potential while not undermining some of the planned observations scheduled for later in the year.

But NASA remains tight-lipped about what will happen next. Here’s what we know so far.

Hubble's Ultra Deep Field

If the Webb photo is going to go further than humans have seen before, it must surpass the Hubble Space Telescope’s Ultra Deep Field survey.
Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope

What do they mean by the “deepest” photo to date?

If the Webb photo is going to go further than what humans have seen before, it must surpass the Hubble Space Telescope’s Ultra Deep Field survey, captured about 20 years ago. The famous and vast image shows almost 10,000 galaxies of different ages, sizes, shapes and colors.

In astronomy, looking further means observing the past because light and other forms of radiation take longer to reach us. In Hubble Deep Field, the oldest visible galaxies date back to the first 800 million years after the Big Bang. This is an incredibly early period compared to the estimated universe age of 13.8 years. billion years.

But Webb was designed to see an even earlier period, using a primary mirror much larger than Hubble — 21 feet in diameter compared to just under 8 feet — and detecting invisible light at infrared wavelengths. In short, a lot of dust and gas in space obscures the view of extremely distant and inherently faint light sources, but infrared waves can penetrate through clouds. A Webb scientist said the telescope was so sensitive it could detect heat from a bumblebee on the moon.

“The original goal of this mission was to see the first stars and galaxies,” Webb program scientist Eric Smith said, “not the first light in the universe but to watch the universe turn on the lights for the first time. “.

Exoplanet in transit

When exoplanets pass each other in front of their host star, the light from the star is filtered through this atmosphere.
Credit: ESA, NASA, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble) and STScI

What will this “spectrum of exoplanets” tell us?

The Webb team will present the telescope’s first exoplanet spectrum, a study of light passing through a planet’s atmosphere, revealing what molecules are there.

Astronomers have found around 5,000 so-called exoplanets, worlds that orbit stars other than the sun, but statistically speaking there should be exponentially more. The universe could possibly have more than 100 billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, according to The Planetary Society. If most stars have one or more planets around them, there could be on the order of “billions of trillions” of exoplanets out there.

Scientists can use Webb to study the atmospheres of planets. When exoplanets pass each other in front of their host star, the light from the star is filtered through this atmosphere. Molecules in the atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths of light, or colors, so by splitting starlight into its basic parts – a rainbow – astronomers can detect which segments of light are missing to discern the molecular composition of an atmosphere.

“It’s a moving moment when you see nature suddenly revealing some of its secrets.”

Knowing what’s in another planet’s atmosphere is important, scientists say. The composition of the Earth’s atmosphere changed, for example, when life appeared on the planet, revealing carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Researchers believe that by studying atmospheres, they can determine if other planets might harbor or be hospitable to life.

Although the researchers did not disclose the exoplanet they studied, it is likely not a rocky world like Earth. Gas giant exoplanets, similar in composition to Jupiter, are easier to analyze, so astronomers likely targeted one of them first.

The planet Jupiter

Some of the James Webb Space Telescope observations will focus on solar system objects, like Jupiter and its moons.
Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO team via Getty Images

Are any of the photos in the solar system?

It’s not yet clear whether Webb’s first photo will include images of nearby planets or space objects.

The first images are expected to highlight the scientific themes that inspired the mission: information about the early universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the life and death of stars, and features of other worlds.

By July 12, the Webb team will have completed 120 hours of observations, collecting five days of scientific data. Five days later, they will likely have doubled that production, said Jonathan Gardner, deputy principal scientist for the Webb project.

“If we don’t see anything in our solar system on July 12, we will definitely see the planets very soon.”

“There’s an ‘early release science program’ that focuses on Jupiter and the moons of Jupiter and the Jovian system,” Gardner said, “so if we don’t see anything in our solar system on July 12, we will definitely see the planets very soon.”

This program, developed by the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Webb Advisory Board, will focus on getting lots of initial data to scientists so they can learn the telescope’s capabilities and write better research proposals. This period will cover the first five months of operation of the observatory.

What are the other possible image subjects for the Webb telescope?

While it’s unclear what other “wow” images will feature among this first photo, the Webb team did provide some clues about their schedule based on how they’ve divided the observatory’s time for science work. .

Most of the time – about a third of the program – will be spent studying the galaxies and the gas and dust that exist between them. The rest of the priorities:

  • 25% exoplanets and their origins

  • 20% of star life cycles, focusing on their birth and death

  • 10% galaxies with supermassive black holes in the center, like the Milky Way

  • 5% devoted to the other planets and comets of the terrestrial solar system

  • 5% or more devoted to cosmology and the expansion of the universe

It’s fair to say that many, if not all, of the upcoming images in the release will be dubbed “firsts” in astronomy.

“With this telescope,” Zurbuchen said, “it’s really hard not to break records.”

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