The first color photographs have arrived, providing a tantalizing glimpse of the observatory’s ability to look back in time to the instant when the first stars began to light up the universe, decades after astronomers initially proposed what is now known as the James Webb space telescope.
The first color photograph was revealed on Monday by President Joe Biden, who noted the profound implications for Homo sapiens. Major achievements in space observation always ride on a wave of PR. He described it as “a historic event” for science and technology as well as “for America and all of humanity.”
Fanfare has the paradoxical effect of hiding the accomplishment. The achievement in the instance of Webb, the $10 billion NASA observatory, is real and significant. For the past 30 years, Hubble has shaped our understanding of the heavens, and now Webb, its successor, is ready to do the same for many more.
The image that NASA unveiled on Monday demonstrates the observatory’s capacity to see all the way back to the beginning of time. Nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth, the SMACS 0723 rich galaxy cluster is visible in the foreground. The other galaxies in the picture, though, are what have astronomers the most excited.
The cluster behaves like an astronomy lens, magnifying light from galaxies behind it and showing them in remarkable clarity due to the strong gravitational forces it generates. Researchers found the photographs to be remarkable because of their quality and depth. The new information Webb provides will be studied in depth by scientists all across the world.
The SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster can be seen in the first image as it was 4.6 billion years ago, which is how long it took for light from the cluster to travel to Webb’s mirror. The image’s farther-off galaxies are around 13 billion years old. Future photos, however, are anticipated to reveal much older galaxies that date back 13.5 billion years to the beginning of the cosmos. The goal of many astronomers is to identify the “cosmic dawn,” or the first time the universe was illuminated by stars.
The second Lagrange point, or L2, which is 1 million miles from Earth, the size of Webb’s mirror, and the incomparably high sensitivity of its infrared instruments all contribute to its remarkable performance. Together, they enable the observatory to observe other celestial objects and much fainter, older galaxies than Hubble ever could. Astronomers’ understanding of how the very first stars and galaxies evolved will be directly influenced by the photos and supporting data.
Webb will do more than just reflect on the universe’s earliest stirrings. For a better idea of what the telescope is capable of, NASA will release further photos on Tuesday. The Carina Nebula is a massive stellar nursery 7,600 light-years away that is home to stars much larger than the sun. It is seen beyond the SMACS 0723 cluster. The Southern Ring Nebula, a massive gas cloud that surrounds a dying star, is another target. Another is the cluster of galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet, which is so compact that two of the galaxies are converging into one.
But it’s not only about beautiful pictures. The science behind Webb focuses heavily on spectroscopy, which examines the light wavelengths that the telescope has acquired. This can provide brand-new information about cosmic objects that are not visible to the naked eye. Data to be made public on Tuesday is anticipated to include the spectra of Wasp 96b, a cloudless planet 1,150 light-years from Earth that are half the size of Jupiter and have no atmosphere. Using the same method, it will be possible to identify distant planets with conditions that seem favorable for life and examine the chemical makeup of atmospheres around those worlds.
Astronomers think Webb will enable them to conduct all the scientific research they had planned for and much more, based on the photographs they have already received. Despite all changes, the observatory arrived at the launch pad, traveled to its destination unharmed, and now seems to be in excellent condition. For researchers, the feelings of relief have changed to waves of anticipation since the hard job has now started.