NASA’s distant glimpse into the past

Those fond of astronomy needn’t fear: the age of space exploration certainly isn’t over. Billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, each with their own space exploration companies, continue to drive technology and innovation into space travel, making it more affordable and reachable within our lifetimes for people to explore other planets. But space is unfathomably large and some distances are beyond the reach of rockets, which is where space telescopes come into play. Nasa has unveiled a new telescope to fill the grand shoes of the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been taking shots of the stars since the early 1990s. The James Webb space telescope was made to look billions of light-years away and therefore aeons into the past. NASA unveiled its first beautiful images from the telescope, which is said to be 100 times stronger than its predecessor. More in this article from The Wall Street Journal. – Ross Sinclair

NASA’s James Webb Telescope Images Show Deep Space in Exquisite Detail

Full-color images released Tuesday showcase stellar nurseries and distant galaxies

By Aylin Woodward

A new era of astronomy is dawning as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration completed its release of the first set of scientific images from the James Webb Space Telescope.

It’s progress like this that drives us forward and it gives us inspiration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Tuesday. “Our rockets run on fuel. But inspiration is the fuel that drives NASA and indeed, drives humanity,” Mr. Nelson added.

The full-color images were released Tuesday during a televised broadcast from the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. They showcase Webb’s ability to peer deeper into space—and thus further back in time—than has ever before been possible.

“I keep telling people that this week astronomy on the whole is going to change,” said Kevin Hainline, a University of Arizona astronomer and a mission scientist working on the primary imager of the truck-size telescope—the largest, most powerful one of its kind ever built.

‘It’s progress like this that drives us forward and it gives us inspiration.’— NASA Administrator Bill Nelson

The release comes less than 24 hours after a White House event during which President Biden unveiled the first image from the set, a deep-field image showing a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723. It is the deepest image of the universe taken to date, according to NASA.

The images released Tuesday show the Carina Nebula, one of the largest stellar nurseries; the Southern Ring Nebula, a cloud of gas around a dying star in the constellation Vela; and a group of five galaxies about 290 million light-years away known as Stephan’s Quintet.

NASA also released visual data detailing which molecules are present in the atmosphere of WASP-96b, a mainly gaseous planet beyond our solar system. The data is in the form of a “spectrum,” the result of a technique known as spectroscopy in which starlight filtering through a planet’s atmosphere is used to determine chemical signatures in the atmosphere.

The images released Tuesday include one showing a group of five galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet.

Astronomers can use such spectra to look for signatures associated with the building blocks of life like water vapor. WASP-96b’s spectrum revealed the presence of water vapor in its atmosphere, and experts spotted evidence of clouds.

With its huge 21.5-foot primary mirror, the Webb telescope is 100 times as powerful as NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which has orbited our planet for more than 30 years. Webb orbits the sun about 1 million miles from Earth, using its instruments to peer at some of the oldest and most distant galaxies and stars in the cosmos and searching for exoplanets that might be habitable.

Webb was jointly developed by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

This side-by-side comparison shows the James Webb Space Telescope’s observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light, left, and mid-infrared light, right.

Unlike Hubble, which detects mostly visible light, Webb detects mostly infrared light. That enables it to capture images of older and more distant galaxies, giving astronomers a peek into how the universe took shape just after the big bang almost 14 billion years ago.
“We’ve never looked at the sky in this way before,” said Steven Finkelstein, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Texas, Austin. “The biggest thing we want to understand is when and how do galaxies actually form in the early universe, and this is something that Hubble simply is not big enough—and doesn’t have sensitivity enough and the infrared wavelength regimes—to do.”
Following Tuesday’s release, Webb will continue its first “cycle,” or year, of observations, Dr. Finkelstein said.

Visual data showing chemical signatures present in the atmosphere of WASP-96b, a mainly gaseous planet outside our solar system.

The images released Tuesday aren’t among those proposed by any scientists for the first cycle of observations, according to University of Arizona astronomer Marcia Rieke, the principal investigator for Webb’s primary imager.

“This way we’re not, you know, trampling on their science program,” Dr. Rieke said. “But they’re targets that are meant to be, shall we say, aesthetically pleasing and showing that this telescope is delivering just absolutely fantastic image quality.”

The image covers a portion of the sky about the size of a grain of sand viewed at arm’s length by someone on the ground.
Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Among the most expensive science instruments ever built, the $10 billion Webb telescope was delayed for about a decade before successfully launching on Dec. 25 from French Guiana and completing a commissioning process that lasted months.

Despite the delays and a series of budget cuts that almost derailed Webb, Dr. Hainline said, “We showed we can come together as an international science community to put something in space to do something no one has done.”

Write to Aylin Woodward at [email protected]

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