After more than 20 years of waiting, the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope are just hours away, with U.S. President Joe Biden set to unveil the first images Monday at 5:30 p.m. EDT, with more to come until 10:30 a.m pm EDT will follow Tuesday
For the scientists who have been waiting for the revolutionary space telescope — in some cases for most of their careers — these first images are just the beginning of decades of scientific exploration to come. Webb’s powerful optics and sensitive instruments allow for studies of the very first days of the universe as well as the formation of the first stars and galaxies, characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets and the opportunity to delve deeper into the nature of our outer solar system.
Development of what would later become the Webb Telescope began in 1996. After a long journey through time, some $10 billion and a million miles through space to its operational orbit later, what was once on the Drawing board stood, now a living instrument.
“It’s exciting to be on the cusp of a new view of the universe,” said Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope project since 2002, in an interview with LatestPageNews. “I’m so happy to have helped make this wonderful new machine a reality!”
In addition to the fulfillment of the project, which has lasted more than 20 years, scientists such as Dr. Mutton on Webb, because those 20+ years pale in comparison to the lengths of time Webb will bridge for researchers.
The aging Hubble Space Telescope, with its two-meter primary mirror, can look back into the early Universe to photograph ‘small’ galaxies that formed 480 million years after the Big Bang.
Notably, Webb has a 21-foot-diameter mirror and is more sensitive to the infrared spectrum than Hubble. This is important because the increase in distance from objects that are very far away stretches the light, pushing it deeper into the infrared part of the spectrum. Coupled with a technique called gravitational lensing, in which Webb uses the gravity of foreground galaxy clusters to magnify light from more distant objects in the background, the telescope should allow scientists to see “baby” galaxies, just 200 million in size form years after the Big Bang.
“Nature herself has created a cosmic magnifying glass, with a cluster of massive galaxies bending the very nature of spacetime into a lens,” said Dr. Mutton. “We humans have created the JWST telescope, which will look through this massive lens to see some of the first galaxies to form in our universe.”
The picture unveiled by President Biden this week is expected to be a deep view of the universe and the deepest on record. However, future scientific observations by Webb will look even deeper.
“Pay special attention to the images that will be revealed Monday night,” wrote University of Chicago astronomer Michael Gladders LatestPageNews in an email. “The target is a massive galaxy cluster (prosaically called SMACS 0723) that acts as a strong gravitational lens. I suspect that somewhere in these images we will see some of the most, if not the most, distant galaxy mankind has ever seen.”
But Webb is not just an instrument for studying the earliest days of the cosmos. It will also help scientists look for signs of habitability and maybe even life on the more than 5,000 exoplanets discovered so far.
Webb carries an infrared spectrograph, an instrument that separates light into its frequency components. By obtaining the spectrum of light from a distant star as it passes through an exoplanet atmosphere, scientists will be able to characterize the chemicals in that atmosphere.
“More than anywhere else, we understand the physics of astronomical objects in spectra,” said Dr. gladders “[The Hubble Space Telescope] is primarily an imaging telescope with only modest capabilities for spectroscopy. JWST will also take images, many of which will be spectacular and revealing, but JWST’s main impact will likely lie in its wide range of spectroscopic capabilities.”
As Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s deputy administrator for the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate, said at a news conference ahead of the release of the Webb images last month, life on Earth is known to have altered our planet’s atmosphere. Webb may be able to see similar changes in the atmosphere of exoplanets when extraterrestrial life is at work.
And having such a powerful infrared telescope and spectrograph isn’t just useful for studying things incredibly far away. It will also help scientists study only very distant planets, such as the outer planets of our solar system.
dr Hammel, for example, plans to use her time with Webb to study the atmospheric layers of Uranus and Neptune, while other researchers will study the surface of Mars or the spectrum of asteroids.
In other words, the first Webb images are just the first taste of a lot of science to come.
“This is just the beginning,” said Dr. Mutton. “JWST will study objects from our nearest neighbors in the solar system to the edge of the cosmos.”