NASA said Friday that the first cosmic images from the James Webb Space Telescope would include unprecedented views of distant galaxies, bright nebulae, and a remote gas giant planet.
The US, European and Canadian space agencies are preparing for a big unveiling on July 12 of the first observations of the $10 billion observatories, the successor to Hubble, which is expected to reveal new insights into the universe’s origins.
“I’m very much looking forward to not having to keep these secrets anymore, it will be a big relief,” Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) who supervises Webb, told AFP last week.
The international committee decided that the first wave of full-color science images would include the Carina Nebula, a vast cloud of dust and gas 7,600 light-years away, and the Southern Ring Nebula, which surrounds a dying star 2,000 light-years away.
The Carina Nebula is known for its towering pillars, including “Mystic Mountain,” a three-light-year-tall cosmic peak captured in an iconic Hubble image.
Webb also performed spectroscopy — an analysis of light that reveals detailed information — on a distant gas giant called WASP-96 b, which was discovered in 2014.
Nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, WASP-96 b, has about half the mass of Jupiter and orbits its star in just 3.4 days.
Next is Stephan’s Quintet, a compact galaxy 290 million light-years away. Four of the five galaxies in the quintet are “locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters,” NASA said.
Finally, perhaps most compelling, Webb assembled an image using a foreground galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 as a cosmic magnifying glass for the extraordinarily distant and faint galaxies behind it.
This is known as “gravitational lensing” and uses the mass of foreground galaxies to bend the light of objects behind them, much like glasses.
STSI astronomer Dan Coe told AFP Friday that the telescope had broken scientific ground even in its first images.
“When I first saw the images … of this deep field lensing of this cluster of galaxies, I looked at the images and suddenly I learned three things about the universe that I didn’t know before,” he said.
“It completely turned me off.
Webb’s infrared capabilities allow us to see further back in time to the Big Bang, which occurred 13.8 billion years ago, then an instrument before it.
As the universe expands, the light from the oldest stars shifts from the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths in which it was emitted to longer infrared wavelengths—which Webb is equipped to detect at unprecedented resolution.