President Biden will unveil the first color image of the James Webb Space Telescope at the White House on Monday, marking the end of testing and verification and the beginning of scientific operations at the world’s most powerful space observatory.
“We’re going to give humanity a new view of the cosmos, and it’s a view we’ve never seen before,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who will join Biden at the White House, told reporters in a preview briefing
“One of these images … is the deepest picture of our universe that has ever been taken,” he said. “And we’re just beginning to understand what Webb can and will do.”
NASA plans to release additional “first light” images Tuesday, photos designed to show Webb’s ability to capture light from the first generation of stars and galaxies; to record the details of stellar evolution, from star birth to supernova death; and to study the chemical composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets.
In the last 30 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has grown into one of the largestin astronomical history by helping astronomers determine the age of the universe, confirming the presence of supermassive black holes, capturing the deepest views of the cosmos ever collected, and fly-by-class images of planets in the solar system provide earth.
But Webb, operating just a few degrees above absolute zero behind a tennis court-sized umbrella, promises to push the limits of human knowledge yet with a 21.3-foot-wide segmented primary mirror capable of detecting the faint, extended infrared to further shift light from the time when the stars “came on” after the Big Bang.
Webb is stationed in a nearly 1 million miles from Earth. Over the past six months, engineers and scientists have worked through a complex series of setups, activations and checks, fine-tuning the telescope’s focus and optimizing the performance of its four science instruments.
The first images, released on Monday and Tuesday and selected by an international team of astronomers, “will show the world that Webb is indeed science ready and that it is producing excellent and spectacular results,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb- Project Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
“And it’s also meant to highlight the breadth, the sheer breadth of science that can be done with Webb and highlight all four scientific instruments,” he added. “And last but not least, to celebrate the start of normal scientific activity.”
Targets for Webb’s first public images include:
- The Carina Nebula: A vast star-forming region in the constellation of Carina, about 7,600 light-years from Earth, four times the size of the Orion Nebula. The Carina Nebula is home to the most luminous known star in the Milky Way, as well as the Eta Carinae binary system, which includes a massive sun expected to explode in a supernova explosion in the near future (astronomically speaking).
- Southern Ring Nebula: An expanding cloud of gas half a light-year in diameter expelled from a dying star. Relatively low-mass stars like Earth’s sun end their lives by flaking off their outer layers and forming what are known as “planetary nebulae” while their cores shrink and slowly cool.
- Stephen’s Quintet: A cluster of five galaxies in the constellation Pegasus, 290 million light-years from Earth, discovered in 1877, the first such compact grouping of galaxies discovered. Four of the five galaxies gravitationally interact in a slow-motion merger.
- WASP-96b: An unusual cloudless exoplanet, 1,150 light-years away, about half the size of Jupiter, orbiting its sun every 3.4 days. By spectroscopically analyzing the light from the host star as it travels through the exoplanet’s atmosphere en route to Earth, astronomers can find out details about its chemical composition.
- SMACS J0723.3-7327: The combined gravity of countless stars in giant galaxy clusters like this one, when aligned just right, can act as a powerful lens, magnifying light from more distant objects in the distant background to provide a deeper look back across space and time, than would otherwise be possible.
“The first images will contain observations covering the breadth of Webb science topics,” Pontoppidan said. “From the early Universe, the deepest infrared view of the cosmos yet. We will also see an example of how galaxies interact and grow, and how these catastrophic collisions between galaxies drive the process of star formation.
“We’ll see a few examples from the life cycle of stars, from star birth, where Webb can reveal new, young stars emerging from their natal cloud of gas and dust, to star death, like a dying star , seeding the galaxy with new elements and new dust that could one day become part of new planetary systems.”
Finally, he said, the team will reveal the first chemical fingerprints from an exoplanet’s atmosphere.
One of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most amazing images was its first “deep field” view of a tiny speck of seemingly empty sky over a 10-day period in 1995. To the amazement of experts and the public alike, this long-exposure image revealed more than 3,000 galaxies each Shape, size and age, some of the oldest and most distant ever seen.
Subsequent Hubble deep fields went even further into the past, discovering the faint light from galaxies that shone about 500 million years after the Big Bang. How stars formed and organized so quickly into galactic structures is still a mystery, as is the evolution of the supermassive black holes at their cores.
Webb’s four instruments are expected to push the boundaries even closer to the beginning of galaxy formation. A test image from the telescope’s Canadian-built Fine Guidance Sensor, an image not optimized for detecting extremely faint objects, nevertheless revealed thousands of galaxies.
Webb’s view of SMACS 0723 is intended to demonstrate the observatory’s enormous range.
“This is really just the beginning, we’re just scratching the surface,” said Pontoppidan. “We have observations from a few days in the first images. Looking ahead, we have many years of observations, so we can only imagine what that will be.”