Thursday, September 28, 2023

NASA has released the first color images of the James Webb Space Telescope. They are amazing.

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Last year, before the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, I wrote, “The largest space telescope in history is about to amaze us.”

Consider this a blunder. NASA has finally unveiled its first images of the space observatory. These statues are decades in the making, and are coming after years of delays and inflated budgets† But they do not disappoint. Consider this very first image released Monday by the space agency:

The first image released by the Webb Space Telescope shows part of the distant Universe in detail.

What makes this statue so stunning is how small it is and how big it is at the same time.

It’s small in the sense that this image only represents a tiny portion of the night sky. Imagine holding a grain of sand at arm’s length. The area of ​​the sky covered by grains – that’s the size of the area captured in the image above.

But it’s huge in the sense that almost every object in this image is a galaxy (apart from the bright spiky starbursts, which are stars in the foreground). Think about that: in every pinprick of the sky there are at least thousands upon thousands of galaxies.

And while it may seem like a flat image to us, this image reveals the depths of the universe and is a window through time. The faintest, smallest flashes of light in these photos are images of galaxies as they existed more than 13 billion years ago, almost the beginning of time (that light has been traveling through space ever since). And not only can Webb capture images of galaxies this old; the space telescope can take measurements about which elements they are early galaxies are composed of

An image like this is related to a core sample of a sedimentary rock. It shows the evolution of the universe over time in its many layers.

And it represents a vast improvement over the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope, which was the largest observatory in space until the Webb’s launch. Hubble’s mirror has an impressive diameter of 7.8 feet. Webb’s beautiful, gold-colored mirrors combine for a diameter of 21.3 feet. All in all, that amounts to more than six times the light-gathering areaand when it comes to telescopes, collecting more light equals more detail.

You can already see the improvements Webb is bringing to the Hubble. The Hubble Space Telescope previously made similar observations of the same Webb galaxy cluster captured above.

In the image slider below, the Hubble view is on the left. On the right, Webb’s rendering is more detailed. More of the fainter galaxies in the background are easier to distinguish. It’s also easier to see how some galaxies are more clearly distorted, the result of their light passing through gravitational lenses from the galaxies closer to the foreground. (Note: These images are not perfectly aligned, but you can still see the big difference in detail).

On the left the view from Hubble. On the right the same image from the Webb telescope.

The Webb’s other advantage over Hubble is the kind of light it captures.

Light comes in many different variants. The human eye can only see a narrow band known as visible light, but the universe contains a lot of light outside this range, including the high-frequency, higher energy forms: ultraviolet light and gamma rays. Then there is the lower energy light with longer wavelengths: infrared, microwaves, radio.

The Hubble Space Telescope collects visible light, ultraviolet and a little bit of infrared. the Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, so it sees light with a longer wavelength than our eyes can see. This seems nerdy and technical, but it’s actually what allows Webb to see further back in time than the Hubble.

Infrared light is often very old light, because of a phenomenon called redshift† When a light source moves away from a viewer, it stretches, changes to an increasingly longer wavelength and becomes redder. It’s similar to what happens to the sound when a siren goes by: the pitch increases as the siren approaches and then decreases as it walks away. Because space is constantly expandingAs the farthest things in the universe move away from us, their light gets redder and redder before finally falling into the infrared spectrum. Infrared is invisible to human eyes, but Webb can capture it in great detail.

As the universe expands, it stretches the wavelengths of light with it, a process called redshift. The farther away an object is, the more its light is stretched by the time it reaches us.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (Caltech-IPAC)

On Tuesday, NASA released more images of Webb, showing off his impressive capabilities. See here the Carina Nebula, a region of star formation. Infrared light is less obscured by cosmic dustand so the Webb telescope can reveal more stars in this region then Hubble could† Webb reveals emerging stellar nurseries and individual stars completely hidden in visible light photos, NASA explains

The Carina Nebula as seen through the James Webb Space Telescope.

Here Webb sees five galaxies. Webb shows unprecedented detail in this galaxy group, NASA relay† “Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image.”

The Stephan’s Quintet of Galaxies, as seen through the Webb Space Telescope.

In another stunning image, Webb observes the remains of a dying star in the Southern Ring Nebula. At the bottom left, the nebula is captured in near infrared and on the right it is captured in mid infrared, each bringing out different details in this catastrophe. The faint star at the center “has been sending rings of gas and dust in all directions for thousands of years,” NASA writes

The Southern Ring Nebula, as seen through the Webb Telescope, left in near infrared light and right in mid infrared light.

This is just the beginning of the Webb’s scientific mission. In the future, scientists hope to use it to see the very first galaxies, which contain the very first stars, and understand a time period that “cosmic dawn”, when the universe first became transparent to starlight.

Before the cosmic dawn, the universe was shrouded in a “dense, obscuring mist of primordial gasexplains the National Science Foundation. There is no light reaching our telescopes from this time, that is called the cosmic dark ages† (There is some background radiation from the Big Bang called the cosmic microwave background, a faint glow that appears to us from before the Dark Ages. But for the most part, the Dark Age is an empty spot in our universe timeline.)

Astronomers hope the Webb will help them understand the end of the Dark Ages and figure out what lifted this fog and ushered in the cosmic dawn.

Scientists are also excited to use Webb’s infrared capabilities to study exoplanets, which are planets orbiting stars other than our own. Webb is unlikely to see an exoplanet directly, but what it can do is observe the stars they orbit. When a planet orbits in front of the star, the light from the star passes through the planet’s atmosphere as a filter. Scientists can study the quality of the light that comes out of that filter and use it to determine the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. And the team of scientists working on Webb has already done this. On Tuesday, NASA announced that Webb has detected water in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet orbiting a sun-like star

Progress like the James Webb Space Telescope makes me think about how we, humanity, are a part of the universe looking back on itself. The Big Bang, the birth of stars, the formation of galaxies… we are as much a result of the physics and evolution of the universe as anything else that exists out there. So when we look back through the cosmos with a telescope like the Webb, we make a loop. We’re building a tool to maybe make the universe a little more self-aware.

The Webb, in its most basic function, allows us to see: Lake of the universe, and further back in time. This is just the beginning. There is so much more to see.

Read more: Space Telescopes

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