The James Webb Space Telescope illuminated 2022 with dazzling images of the early universe after the Big Bang, ushering in a new era of astronomy and untold discoveries about the universe in the years to come.
The most powerful observatory ever sent into space comes after the Hubble Telescope, which is still operational and began sending back its first cosmic images in July.
“It’s behaving better than expected in almost every region,” said Massimo Steavelli, chief of the Webb mission office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Scientists already say that the Webb telescope, which now orbits the sun at a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth, should last 20 years, twice its guaranteed lifetime.
“The instruments are more efficient, the optics are sharper and more stable. We have more fuel and use less fuel,” said Steavelli.
Stabilization is vital to the clarity of images.
“Our requirement was similar to Hubble’s in terms of pointing accuracy. We ended up with seven times better,” the mission office chief added.
The public appetite for discoveries was fueled by the coloring of telescope images.
The light from galaxies farther out from the visible spectrum, which can be seen with the naked eye, has been extended into infrared radiation — which Webb is equipped to monitor with unprecedented precision.
This enables the telescope to detect the faintest flash of the distant universe with unprecedented accuracy, to see through the veil of dust that hides the appearance of stars in the nebula and to analyze the atmospheres of the exoplanets, which orbit the stars outside our solar system.
“The first year[of observation]is a way to test the instrument for small, rocky planets in the habitable zone that could be like Earth,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, an associate professor of astronomy at Cornell University.
“And the auditions are beautiful. They’re amazing.”
Webb blasted off aboard an Ariane 5 rocket at the end of 2021, capping a 30-year project at NASA.
It took 10,000 people and $10 billion to put the 6.2-ton observatory into space.
On his way to the final orbit, Webb spread a five-layer, tennis-court-sized sunscreen followed by a 6.5-meter base mirror made of 18 gold-plated hexagons, or petals.
Once calibrated to less than a millionth of a meter, the 18 petals began collecting light pulsars.
On July 12, the first images revealed Webb’s capabilities revealed thousands of galaxies, some dating back to roughly the birth of the universe, and a stellar nursery in the Carina Nebula.
Jupiter has been captured in stunning detail and is expected to help understand the gas giant’s workings.
Galaxies ‘too many’
The blue, orange, and gray hues of the images of the “Pillars of Creation,” giant pillars of dust where stars are born, proved captivating.
Scientists saw the discoveries as a way to rethink their models of star formation.
Researchers using the new observatory discovered the most distant galaxies ever observed, one of which existed only 350 million years after the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago.
The galaxies appear extremely bright and may have started forming 100 million years earlier than theories predict.
“In the distant universe, we have an excess of galaxies compared to models,” David Elbaz, scientific director of astrophysics at the French Agency for Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy, told AFP.
Another surprise was that where Hubble primarily observed irregularly shaped galaxies, the Webb telescope’s resolution produces gorgeous spiral galaxies similar to our own.
This has led to musings about a possible global model that could be one of the keys to star formation.
Webb also opened up an abundance of clusters of millions of leading stars, which could be the potential missing link between the first stars and the first galaxies.
In the field of exoplanets, Webb honed a distant gas giant called WASP-96 b, which was discovered in 2014.
Roughly 1,150 light-years from Earth, WASP-96 b is about half the mass of Jupiter and moves around its star in just 3.4 days.
Webb provided the first confirmation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Wasp 39-b.
But for Steavelli, “some of the big things either haven’t been noticed yet, or they haven’t been revealed yet.”
© 2022 AFP
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