Yes, the first images from the Webb Space Telescope are crazy. But what awaits us here

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals stellar nurseries and the formation of individual stars in the Carina Nebula. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI.

This week, NASA and its partners released the first color images and data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a scientific and engineering feat that has given humanity the farthest glimpse into space yet. The world has now seen astonishing images of cosmic history – the formation and death of stars, water vapor on planets 1,000 light-years away.

start the journey

As deep and illuminating as these images are, which already provide a better understanding of our universe, they are just the beginning of a journey that will span decades for JWST.

“We’re making discoveries, and we haven’t even started (our work) yet,” Eric Smith, deputy director of NASA’s Web program, told reporters this week. The first images, he says, “were more or less a hands-on exercise with the instrument…the promise of this telescope is amazing.”

To understand JWST’s full potential, one must start with two basic facts. First, JWST is the largest and most powerful observatory sent into space. Second, JWST will collect data for much longer periods in space.

The first images are the result of just 120 hours of observation – five days of data. One of them, Stefan’s new image of the quintet, contains more than 150 million pixels and was created from about 1,000 individual image files. On Thursday, the Webb mission will release nearly 40 terabytes of raw data collected by the telescope.

By this time, the telescope has enough fuel to continue observing space for the next 20 years. “It’s an incredible amount of data that will come down,” said Web project scientist Klaus Pontopidan.

From spectacular images to scientific discoveries

Now that the data is in, it’s time for scientists to get to work.

JWST’s first year of work is planned, with proposals selected in a peer-reviewed competition by scientists from around the world. When these scientists receive the data, they process the images and spectra.

“Some discoveries will be very fast — the Web is powerful enough that some new results will become apparent,” Jonathan Gardner, deputy chief scientist for the Web project, told reporters last month. “Other inventions will take longer as we push the Web and its devices to the limits of their capabilities.”

Scientists will publish results in professional journals, but the Space Telescope Science Institute will also publish data and images, making these results publicly available.

So far, the telescope is performing better than expected, Jonathan Gardner notes, with sharp focus, and instruments exceeding their requirements. “The first pictures will be spectacular, but the scientific discoveries over the next year will be truly amazing.”

Observations from “citizen scientists”.

Professional scientists will not study images from the James Webb Telescope. The winning proposals already include the contribution of a “citizen scientist”.

Dan Castleden, a computer security professional in Massachusetts, co-investigated a winning proposal for JWST monitoring. The proposal, titled “Explaining the Variation in Cold Worlds,” will focus on the study of a group of 12 brown dwarf planets that all appear to have similar temperatures, but have different infrared luminosities.

This fall, scientists — professional or otherwise — will be invited to submit their proposals for the second round of Guaranteed Time (GTO) observations of the web, which will begin in mid-2023.

to observe dozens of exoplanets

The first cycle of observations will cover the full range of possibilities from the deepest galactic field to rocky planets. During its first year in space, the James Webb Telescope will observe dozens of exoplanets, according to astronomer Nestor Espinoza.

“Rocky planets to giants, hot, cold planets – whatever you want,” the exoplanet expert argues. “This first year has all the variety, so I can’t wait to see what comes out of it. »

Already, he added, the telescope will bring back observations of the Trappist-1 system, a solar system with planets that may be in the habitable zone.

Additional photos

Because James Webb is an infrared telescope, it can capture information about the contents of a planet’s atmosphere. The images captured by the telescope complement those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which captures visible wavelengths.

Web project scientist Alex Lockwood compared the two telescopes with physical tests as well as X-rays. “When you get an X-ray… it’s very different from what you see when you look at the person. But it gives you a lot more information and it’s complementary. »

In addition to combining images from Hubble and Webb, scientists will be able to augment their research with data from the LIGO mission, which measures gravitational waves.

“We don’t know what we’ll find.”

If Webb’s images have already excited scientists, it may take several years to realize their full significance, predicts René Doyn, principal investigator of one of Webb’s instruments.

Hubble, for example, was designed to measure the Hubble constant, but no one could have predicted that it would help scientists discover that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

“We designed this telescope and this instrument to do amazing science,” he says. “But in reality, we don’t know what we’re going to find. »


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