BALTIMORE – So far it has been eye candy from the sky: a vastness of black space teeming with incomprehensibly distant, incomprehensible blobs of light. Ghostly images of Neptune, Jupiter, and other neighbors we already thought we knew. Nebulae and galaxies seen by the penetrating infrared eyes of the James Webb Space Telescope.
The telescope, named after James Webb, director of NASA during the boost for the Apollo moon landings, is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. It launched the Christmas of a year ago – after two decades of trouble and $10 billion – then mission to observe the universe In wavelengths that the human eye cannot see. With a 21-foot-wide primary mirror, Webb is seven times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. Depending on the calculation method, one hour of observing time on the telescope can cost NASA $19,000 or more.
But neither NASA nor astronomers paid all that money and political capital just for the beautiful pictures — and no one is complaining.
“The first images were just the beginning,” said Nancy Levinson, interim director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which manages both Webb and Hubble. “More is needed to turn it into real science.”
bright future (infrared)
For three days in December, about 200 astronomers filled a hall at the institute to hear and discuss the first results from the telescope. According to the organizers, an additional 300 or so people were seen online. The event was a belated celebration of Webb’s successful launch and opening and a preview of its bright future.
One by one, astronomers stepped onto the podium, chatted quickly to comply with the 12-minute limit, and launched themselves into a world of discovery. Galaxies that, even in their relative youth, have already produced supermassive black holes. Atmospheric studies of some of the seven rocky exoplanets orbiting Trappist 1, a red dwarf star that may harbor habitable planets. (The data suggests that at least two of the exoplanets lack the massive atmospheres of primordial hydrogen that would smother life as we know it, but may have weak atmospheres of denser molecules like water or carbon dioxide.)
“We’re in business,” declared Bjorn Beneke of the University of Montreal, providing data on an exoplanet.
Megan Reiter of Rice University took her colleagues on a “deep dive” through the cosmic cliffs, a cloudy hotbed of star formation in the constellation Carina, once a favorite piece of sky candy. It tracks how jets from new stars, shock waves, and ionizing radiation from nearby, more massive stars born at a high temperature, are constantly reshaping cosmic geography and causing new stars to form.
“This could be a model of what our sun went through when it was formed,” Dr. Reiter said in an interview.
Between presentations, on the sidelines and in the corridors, the top astronomers who were present in 1989 when the Webb telescope idea was first mooted congratulate each other and share war stories about the telescope’s development. They gasped audibly as the kids presented the data that blew up their accomplishments with Hubble.
Jane Rigby, the telescope’s operations project scientist, recalled her emotional turmoil a year ago when the telescope was finally close to launch. The instrument is designed to unfold in space – a complex process with 344 “single point failures” – and only Dr. Rigby can count them over and over again.
“I was in denial,” she said in Baltimore. But launch and deployment went flawlessly. Now, she said, “I’m living the dream.”
Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz who in 1989 chaired a key meeting at the Space Telescope Science Institute that eventually led to Webb, said simply, “I’m just blown away.”
At a reception after the first day of the meeting, John Mather of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and lead scientist for Project Webb from the outset raised a glass to the 20,000 people who built the telescope, the 600 astronomers who tested it in space and the new generation of scientists who will use it.
“Some of you weren’t even born when we started planning for it,” he said. “Own it!”
So far, the telescope, packed with cameras, spectrometers, and other instruments, has exceeded expectations. (Its analytical power is double that of what is advertised.) Dr. Rigby reports that the telescope’s flawless launch left it with enough maneuvering fuel to keep it running for 26 years or more.
“Those are happy numbers,” she said, as she and her colleagues crunched the performance statistics of their machines. Dr. Rigby cautioned that the telescope’s instruments are still being calibrated, so the numbers may change just yet. Prepare to recalculate your results at the push of a button, I told a group of astronomers in the lobby: “Otherwise, you’re going to hate your life.”
Perhaps the biggest Webb surprise so far relates to events in the early millennium of the universe. It appears that galaxies were forming, generating and feeding stars faster than battle-tested cosmological models estimate.
“How do galaxies advance so quickly?” asked Adam Riess, a Nobel laureate in physics and cosmologist from Johns Hopkins University, who was present today.
Exploring that province—the “cosmic spring,” as one astronomer called it—is the goal of several international collaborations with acronyms such as JADES (Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey), CEERS (Cosmic Evolution of Early Launch Science), and GLASS (Grism Lens-Amplified Survey). from space) and PEARLS (Primary Extragalactic Regions for Reionization and Lensing Science).
Webb’s infrared vision is central to these efforts. As the universe expands, distant galaxies and celestial bodies are moving away from Earth so quickly that their light is stretched and transformed into invisible infrared wavelengths. After a certain point, the most distant galaxies recede so quickly, their light stretched out in wavelength, that it is not visible even to the Hubble telescope.
The Webb telescope was designed to detect and explore these regions that represent the universe only a billion years old, when the first galaxies began to flourish with stars.
“It takes time for matter to cool down and become dense enough to ignite stars,” noted Emma Curtis Lake, of the University of Hertfordshire and a member of the JADES team. She added that the rate of star formation peaked when the universe was four billion years old, and has been declining since then. The universe is now 13.8 billion years old.
Astronomers measure cosmic distances with a parameter called the redshift, which indicates how much the light coming from a distant object is stretched. Just a few months ago, a redshift of 8, which corresponds to a time when the universe was about 646 million years old, was considered high redshift. Thanks to Dr. Curtis Lake and her colleagues, the standard redshift is now 13.2, which corresponds to when the universe was only 325 million years old.
Dr. Curtis-Lake and her team had pointed the telescope at a patch of sky called God’s South, searching for galaxies that Hubble couldn’t spot. Sure enough, there were four of them, ghosts in the haze of Creation Heat. Subsequent measurements confirmed that she was indeed going back in time.
“We didn’t want to say we thought that — publicly,” said JADES member Brant Robertson of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The record is not expected to last long. The CEERS collaboration has reported a candidate galaxy It can have a redshift of 16since the universe was only 250 million years old.
Experts are already debating whether these overstressed galaxies reveal something fundamental, and overlooked, in current theories of the early universe. Perhaps some field or influence increased gravity at that time accelerating the growth of galaxies and black holes. Or perhaps the discrepancies simply reflect scientific skepticism about the messy details — the “gastrophysics” — of star formation.
Over the past 20 years, astronomers have refined a solid “standard model” of a universe composed of dark energy, dark matter, and a small group of atomic matter. It’s too early to break this paradigm, Dr. Curtis Lake said in an interview. Webb may have had three decades of surveillance ahead of him. “We’re in the early stages,” she said.
The closing talk fell on Dr. Mather. He limited the history of the telescope, giving a shout-out to Barbara Mikulski, the former Maryland senator, who backed the project in 2011 when it was in danger of being canceled. He also previewed NASA’s next big act: a 12-meter space telescope called the Habitable Worlds Observatory that searches for and studies planets.
He said, “Everything we did was worth it.” “So here we are: This is a gala party, taking a peek at what’s in here. It’s not the last thing we’re going to do.”
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