Space enthusiasts are holding their breath.
The James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful ever sent into orbit, is set Tuesday to unveil breathtaking new views of the Universe with a clarity that’s never been seen before.
Distant galaxies, bright nebulae and a faraway giant gas planet are among the observatory’s first targets, US space agency NASA said Friday.
But the images themselves have been jealously guarded to build suspense ahead of the big reveal.
“I’m looking very much forward to not having to keep these secrets anymore, that will be a great relief,” Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) that oversees Webb, told AFP.
NASA chief Bill Nelson has promised the “deepest image of our Universe that has ever been taken.”
Webb’s infrared capabilities are what make it uniquely powerful — allowing it to both pierce through cosmic dust clouds and detect light from the earliest stars, which has been stretched into infrared wavelengths as the Universe expanded.
This lets it peer further back in time than any previous telescope, to the period shortly after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.
“When I first saw the images… I suddenly learned three things about the Universe that I didn’t know before,” Dan Coe, an STSI astronomer and expert on the early Universe, told AFP. “It’s totally blown my mind.”
– First targets –
An international committee decided the first wave of images would include the Carina Nebula, an enormous cloud of dust and gas 7,600 light years away.
Carina Nebula is famous for its towering pillars that include “Mystic Mountain,” a three-light-year-tall cosmic pinnacle captured in an iconic image by the Hubble Space Telescope, until now humanity’s premier space observatory.
Webb has also carried out a spectroscopy — an analysis of light that reveals detailed information — on a faraway gas giant called WASP-96 b, which was discovered in 2014.
Nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, WASP-96 b is about half the mass of Jupiter and zips around its star in just 3.4 days.
Nestor Espinoza, an STSI astronomer, told AFP that previous exoplanet spectroscopies carried out using existing instruments were very limited compared to what Webb could do.
“It’s like being in a room that is very dark and you only have a little pinhole you can look through,” he said of the prior technology. Now, with Webb, “You’ve opened a huge window, you can see all the little details.”
Perhaps most enticing of all, Webb has gathered an image using foreground galaxy clusters called SMACS 0723 as a kind of cosmic magnifying glass for the extremely distant and faint objects behind it.
– Million miles from Earth –
Launched in December 2021 from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket, Webb is orbiting the Sun at a distance of a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth, in a region of space called the second Lagrange point.
Here, it remains in a fixed position relative to the Earth and Sun, with minimal fuel required for course corrections.
A wonder of engineering, the total project cost is estimated at $10 billion, making it one of the most expensive scientific platforms ever built, comparable to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
Webb’s primary mirror is over 21 feet (6.5 meters) wide and is made up of 18 gold-coated mirror segments. Like a camera held in one’s hand, the structure must remain as stable as possible to achieve the best shots.
Charlie Atkinson, chief engineer on the James Webb Space Telescope program at lead contractor Northrop Grumman, told AFP that it wobbles no more than 17 millionths of a millimeter.
Atkinson, who has been working on the program since 1998, said: “We knew it was going to require some of the best talents across the world, but it was doable.”
After the first images, astronomers around the globe will get shares of time on the telescope, with projects selected competitively through a process in which applicants and selectors don’t know each others’ identity, to minimize bias.
Thanks to an efficient launch, NASA estimates Webb has enough propellant for a 20-year life, as it works in concert with the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to answer fundamental questions about the cosmos.
The James Webb Space Telescope, by the numbers
Washington (AFP) July 11, 2022 –
The most powerful space telescope ever built, James Webb is set to deliver its first full-color scientific images to the world Tuesday.
Here is an overview of this feat of human ingenuity, in five key figures.
– More than 21 feet –
The centerpiece of the observatory is its huge main mirror, measuring more than 21 feet (6.5 meters) in diameter and made up of 18 smaller, hexagonal-shaped mirrors.
The observatory also has four scientific instruments: cameras to take pictures of the cosmos, and spectrographs, which break down light to study which elements and molecules make up objects.
The mirror and the instruments are protected from the light of our Sun by a tennis-court sized thermal shield, made up of five superimposed layers.
Each layer is hair thin, and together they ensure the telescope operates in the darkness needed to capture faint glimmers from the far reaches of the Universe.
– Million miles away –
Unlike the Hubble telescope which revolves around the Earth, Webb orbits around the Sun, nearly a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from us, or four times the distance from our planet to the Moon.
It took the spacecraft almost a month to reach this region, called Lagrange Point two, where it remains in a fixed position behind the Earth and Sun to give it a clear view of the cosmos.
Here, the gravity from the sun and Earth balance the centrifugal motion of a satellite, meaning it needs minimal fuel for course correction.
– 13.8 billion years –
In astronomy, the farther out you see, the deeper back in time you’re looking.
Webb’s infrared capabilities are what make it uniquely powerful — allowing it to detect light from the earliest stars, which has been stretched into infrared wavelengths as the Universe expanded.
This lets it peer further back in time than any previous telescope, to within a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.
– Three-decade wait –
The project was first conceived in the 1990s, but construction did not begin until 2004.
Then Webb’s launch date was repeatedly postponed. Initially set for 2007, it finally took place on December 25, 2021, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, from French Guiana.
– $10 billion –
Webb is an international collaboration between US space agency NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), involving more than 10,000 people.
The lifetime cost to NASA alone will be approximately $9.7 billion, according to an analysis by the Planetary Society, or $10.8 billion adjusted for inflation to 2020 dollars.
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NASA reveals Webb telescope’s first cosmic targets
Washington (AFP) July 8, 2022
NASA said Friday the first cosmic images from the James Webb Space Telescope will include unprecedented views of distant galaxies, bright nebulae, and a faraway giant gas planet.
The US, European and Canadian space agencies are gearing up for a big reveal on July 12 of early observations by the $10 billion observatory, the successor to Hubble that is set to reveal new insights into the origins of the universe.
“I’m looking very much forward to not having to keep these secrets anymore, that will … read more