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The Webb Telescope Is Just Getting Started

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Baltimore — So far, it’s been an eye candy from heaven. The black vastness of space, filled with mysterious, immeasurably distant clumps of light. Ghostly portraits of Neptune, Jupiter, and other neighbors we thought we already knew. Nebulae and galaxies visualized by the James Webb Space Telescope’s penetrating infrared eye.

Named after NASA administrator James Webb, who was preparing the Apollo moon landings, the telescope is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. It launched a year ago on Christmas — after spending his troubled 20 years and his $10 billion — on a mission to observe the universe at wavelengths unseen by the human eye. for. With a 21-foot-wide primary mirror, his Webb is seven times more powerful than his predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. An hour of his observation time with the telescope could cost NASA more than $19,000 for him, depending on how it’s calculated.

But neither NASA nor the astronomers paid all that money and political capital just for pretty pictures.

“The first images were just the beginning,” said Nancy Levenson, interim director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs both Webb and Hubble. “It takes a lot more to turn them into true science.”

For three days in December, about 200 astronomers filled the Institute’s auditorium to hear and discuss the first results from the telescope. He was also watched by some 300 people online, according to organizers. The event was both a belated celebration of Webb’s launch and his successful inauguration, as well as a foretaste of its bright future.

One by one, the astronomers marched to the podium, tortured to adhere to the 12-minute limit, and raced through a universe of discovery. Even relatively young galaxies were already producing supermassive black holes. Atmospheric studies of several of the seven rocky exoplanets orbiting the red dwarf Trappist 1. Habitable planets may exist. (Data show that at least two of the exoplanets lack the bulky primordial hydrogen atmospheres that stifle life as we know them, but contain denser molecules like water and carbon dioxide. may have a rarefied atmosphere of

“We are in business,” declared Bjorn Benneke of the University of Montreal, while presenting data from one of the exoplanets.

Megan Reiter of Rice University took her colleagues on a “deep dive” of “Cosmic Cliffs.” Cosmic Cliffs, the clouded hotbeds of star formation in the Carina constellation, were popular early sky candy. She shows how jets from new stars, shock waves, and ionizing radiation from hot-boiling, more massive nearby stars are constantly reshaping the geography of the universe and triggering the formation of new stars. Tracking.

“This could be a template for what our own Sun experienced when it formed,” Dr. Reiter said in an interview.

Between presentations, on the sidelines and in the corridors, senior astronomers who had been present in 1989, when the idea of ​​the Webb telescope was first hammered out, congratulated each other and exchanged war stories about the development of the telescope. When the youngsters showed off data that blew their own achievements at Hubble, they were heard gasping.

Jane Rigby, the project scientist in charge of telescope operations, recalled the emotional turmoil a year ago when the telescope finally approached launch. The device was designed to be deployed in outer space, a complex process with 344 potential “single points of failure” that Dr. Rigby could only count over and over again. .

“I was in the denial phase,” she said in Baltimore. Now she said, “I’m living the dream.”

Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who chaired the important meeting at the Space Telescope Science Institute that eventually led to Webb in 1989, said, “I was just overwhelmed. I did,” he said simply.

At a reception after the first day of the conference, John Mather and Webb’s senior project scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center from the beginning gave a glass to the 20,000 people who built the telescope and the 600 astronomers who tested it in space. a new generation of scientists who raise and use it.

“Some of you weren’t even born when we started planning,” he said.

So far, the telescope with cameras, spectrographs and other instruments has exceeded expectations. (Its resolution is twice as good as he’s advertised.) With the telescope’s perfect launch, Dr. Rigby reportedly left enough maneuvering fuel in the telescope to keep it operating for more than 26 years. increase.

“That’s a nice number,” she said as she and her colleagues rattled off instrument performance statistics. Dr. Rigby warned that the telescope’s instruments are still being calibrated, so the numbers could still change. Ready to recalculate results at the push of a button, she told a group of astronomers in the lobby.

Perhaps the Webb telescope’s greatest surprise so far has to do with events in the first millennium of the universe. Galaxies appear to be forming, generating and nurturing stars faster than the estimates of battle-tested cosmic models.

“Why did galaxies age so quickly?” Adam Ries, a Nobel laureate in physics and cosmologist at Johns Hopkins University, stopped by that day.

Exploring that region, which some astronomers have called the “Fountain of the Universe”, has led JADES (JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey), CEERS (Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science), GLASS (Grism Lens-Amplified Survey From Space) and PEARLS (Prime Extragalactic Area for Reionization and Lensing Science).

Webb’s infrared vision is the cornerstone of these efforts. As the universe expands, galaxies and other distant objects are rapidly moving away from Earth, stretching their light and shifting it into invisible infrared wavelengths. Beyond a certain point, the most distant galaxies recede rapidly, stretching their light wavelengths so much that even the Hubble telescope can’t see them.

The Webb telescope was designed to expose and explore these regions, which represent the universe just a billion years ago when the first galaxies began to bloom with stars.

“It takes time for matter to cool and become dense enough to ignite a star,” says Emma Curtis-Lake of the University of Hertfordshire. The rate of star formation peaked when the universe was 4 billion years old and has been declining since then, she added.

Astronomers measure cosmic distances using a parameter called redshift. This indicates how much light from distant objects has been stretched. Only a few months ago, a redshift of 8, corresponding 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 record redshift is now 13.2, corresponding to a time when the universe was only 325 million years old.

Dr. Curtis-Lake and her team were pointing the telescope at a patch of sky called GOODS South, looking for galaxies Hubble failed to detect. Sure enough, they were her four, ghosts in the heat fog of creation. Subsequent measurements confirmed that they were indeed going back in time.

Brant Robertson, a JADES member at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said:

This record is not expected to last long. CEERS collaboration reports candidate galaxies can have 16 redshiftssince the universe was only 250 million years old.

Experts are already debating whether these overzealous galaxies reveal something fundamental that is overlooked by current theories of the early universe. Perhaps some field or effect accelerated the gravitational pull of the time, accelerating the growth of galaxies and black holes. Alternatively, this discrepancy may simply reflect scientific uncertainties regarding the intricate details of star formation (“gastric physics”).

Over the past two decades, astronomers have refined a robust ‘standard model’ of the universe, composed of dark energy, dark matter, and little atomic matter. Dr. Curtis-Lake said in an interview that it’s too early to break that model. Webb has observations that are probably 30 years ahead. “We are in the early stages,” she said.

Closing remarks were entrusted to Dr. Mather. He explained the history of the telescope and thanked former Maryland Senator Barbara Mikuluski for supporting the project when it was in danger of being canceled in 2011. He also previewed NASA’s next big move: seek out planets and study them with his 12-meter space telescope called the Habitable World Observatory.

“Everything we did turned out to be worth it,” he said. “So we’re here: this is a celebration party, and we’ll be the first to take a peek at what’s here. It’s not the last thing we’re going to do.”

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