NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail. The White House released the first image of the collection of pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope during a preview event Monday. Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared – have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.
The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is the most sophisticated observatory ever launched. It left Earth last December. In late January, it reached its celestial parking place a million miles away from the planet. Since then, engineers have been checking out the instruments, aligning the mirrors, and letting the telescope cool down so its instruments will work properly.
Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb EROAt first glance, the first image from NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope may not seem all that remarkable. More images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope should be able to reveal which galaxies in the far, far distance are habitable, Nelson said. The White House, along with NASA, revealed the first of a series of pictures from the telescope since its launch from Earth more than six months ago.
NASA had planned to release the picture as part of a collection of the first scientific results but determined the image is so dramatic that Biden should be the one to reveal it to the world. Before declaring the telescope open for business mission managers wanted to make what they call early release observations. These are intended to show that the telescope works.
In addition to the image containing the earliest galaxies ever seen, NASA will also release images of a stellar nursery where stars form called the Carina Nebula, the Southern Ring Nebula, and a group of galaxies discovered in 1787 called Stephan’s Quintet. There will also be an analysis of the light coming from a giant planet orbiting outside our solar system with the prosaic name WASP-96b.
Webb is designed to gather and analyze infrared light, which is at longer wavelengths than can be seen by the human eye. That will allow it to capture light from the earliest galaxies, which appear in the infrared.
Those early galaxies are far away more than 13 billion light-years and as powerful as the Webb telescope is, they may just look like faint smudges. But those smudges will help astronomers understand more about how the universe as we know it came to be. One early target for the James Webb Space Telescope is a cluster of distant galaxies known as SMACS 0723. The gravitational field of these galaxies acts as a cosmic lens, allowing the telescope to look at far more distant and older parts of the universe.
But that’s just the beginning. The breadth of science Webb can be used for is staggering. In particular, she wants to know about their atmospheres “what they’re made of, what their temperature is.” That will tell her a lot about the planet itself, and whether it might be capable of sustaining life.
Anna Nierenberg of the University of California, Merced, leads a team that has cooked up a clever way to use the new telescope to try to understand the fundamental nature of dark matter, that invisible stuff that makes up a quarter of the universe. “You simply can’t do that with any other instrument,” she says. “If everything works it will be a big deal.”And as with any scientific instrument with new capabilities, no one really knows what secrets the Webb telescope will reveal about the universe we live in.
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