How the James Webb Space Telescope remodeled astronomy this yr

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James Webb Space Telescope launched on December 25, 2021. Its first photos – like this one of many Carina Nebula – shocked researchers.

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James Webb Space Telescope launched on December 25, 2021. Its first photos – like this one of many Carina Nebula – shocked researchers.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

One yr in the past, the James Webb Space Telescope started its journey by way of area.

“JWST was launched on Christmas day, and then was a present that took six months to unwrap,” stated Jane Rigby, an astronomer at NASA and the Operations Project Scientist.

The Pillars of Creation had been first photographed by Hubble in 1995. Webb’s picture reveals numerous newly shaped stars glistening amongst the columns of fuel and dirt.

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The Pillars of Creation had been first photographed by Hubble in 1995. Webb’s picture reveals numerous newly shaped stars glistening amongst the columns of fuel and dirt.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

After an preliminary calibration interval, the telescope began gathering knowledge. And the primary outcomes amazed astronomers.

“I downloaded the data, and I’m like, sitting in my pajamas…you know, it’s pandemic, we’re all working from home,” Rigby stated. “I pulled down those data, and just started paging through them, pouring through them. And it was so beautiful.”

The telescope is barely 5 months into its science mission, and it is already remodeling astronomy. The telescope’s devices have allowed it to seize beforehand unobservable planets, stars and galaxies close to and much.

NPR spoke with three astronomers in several disciplines of astronomy about how JWST is advancing analysis of their space of experience. They all agree JWST is a sport changer, and that there is loads extra groundbreaking analysis nonetheless to come back.

“The ring systems just pop right out, and they’re gorgeous”

JWST’s photos of Neptune are among the clearest of the planet’s rings taken in many years. The brilliant bluish object is Neptune’s giant frozen moon, Triton.

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JWST’s photos of Neptune are among the clearest of the planet’s rings taken in many years. The brilliant bluish object is Neptune’s giant frozen moon, Triton.

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Heidi Hammel is a planetary astronomer and an interdisciplinary scientist on the JWST Project. She joined the group in 2002 as a result of she needed to check the planet Neptune.

In September, JWST skilled its mirrors on the ice big.

“When I first saw the image on my computer screen, I was so emotional,” Hammel stated. “I first started crying, and then I started shouting and calling all my relatives to come look at this picture!”

This is the clearest view of Neptune’s rings in many years, taken by JWST. Observed right here in near-infrared wavelengths, Neptune seems ghostly white as a substitute of blue.

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This is the clearest view of Neptune’s rings in many years, taken by JWST. Observed right here in near-infrared wavelengths, Neptune seems ghostly white as a substitute of blue.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Prior to JWST, Hammel stated, astronomers had by no means clearly noticed Neptune’s ring system. The Voyager spacecraft flew previous Neptune in 1989, however may solely seize the brightest components of the planet’s rings.

JWST’s devices noticed the rings with unmatched readability.

“Boom! The ring systems just pop right out, and they’re gorgeous,” Hammel stated.

“Like stepping out of a virtual reality into the real world”

Outside of our personal photo voltaic system, JWST has additionally helped astronomers observe the oldest and most distant identified galaxies.

“I’ve been looking at simulated data, trying to mimic what JWST would see, for many years now. So when I first saw the data, it was like stepping out of a virtual reality into the real world,” stated Brant Robertson, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics on the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Robertson is on a group of researchers who found the oldest galaxies ever noticed. JWST’s devices allowed his group to determine galaxies as much as 13.4 billion years previous – galaxies that may have shaped lower than 400 million years after the Big Bang, a tiny fraction of the universe’s lifetime.

Hundreds of galaxies seem on this picture, which mixes near-infrared colours captured by Webb’s telescope with these from Hubble.

NASA, ESA, CSA, A. Pagan (STScI) & R. Jansen (ASU)

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NASA, ESA, CSA, A. Pagan (STScI) & R. Jansen (ASU)


Hundreds of galaxies seem on this picture, which mixes near-infrared colours captured by Webb’s telescope with these from Hubble.

NASA, ESA, CSA, A. Pagan (STScI) & R. Jansen (ASU)

“By finding these very early galaxies, we can learn something about our history, about the history of the universe in general, but also specifically about our home,” stated Robertson.

Robertson stated that, whereas older telescopes like Hubble gave astronomers a glimpse of what was on the market, JWST has expanded the scope of what sort of science is feasible.

“It’s like opening a book that you’ve wanted to know the ending of for a long time but have been holding off on reading that concluding paragraph,” Robertson stated, “and then finally seeing the full story revealed to you.

“Pretty a lot all the things we’re doing wasn’t potential earlier than this telescope”

Jane Rigby, JWST’s Operations Project Scientist, is also using the telescope to study distant galaxies.

A naturally occurring phenomenon called gravitational lensing magnifies the light from the galaxies Rigby is observing – combining that with JWST, she’s been able to cut through cosmic dust to study how stars are forming in these galaxies.

Webb captures the picture of a protostar, the very starting of a brand new star. The “hourglass” of mud and fuel clouds is barely seen in infrared mild, the wavelengths Webb focuses on.

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Webb captures the picture of a protostar, the very starting of a brand new star. The “hourglass” of mud and fuel clouds is barely seen in infrared mild, the wavelengths Webb focuses on.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

“Pretty much everything we’re doing wasn’t possible before this telescope,” Rigby stated.

Hubble’s devices would not have been in a position to see by way of the mud obscuring these galaxies, Rigby stated. Furthermore, JWST’s devices enable her to check the fabric composition of those galaxies by way of spectroscopy, a way astronomers generally use to determine the chemical make-up of objects in area.

“We’re studying where stars are forming in these lensed galaxies in ways that are just laughably not possible with any other telescope,” Rigby stated.

JWST has already confirmed to be an unbelievable software for astronomers, however its largest discoveries are nonetheless but to come back, Rigby stated.

“We’re just starting to get this flood of papers announcing discoveries,” she stated. JWST is getting used to check planets in our personal photo voltaic system, atmospheres of planets in different photo voltaic programs, how stars die, how galaxies evolve, and far more, Rigby stated.

Pictured right here in unprecedented element, a dying star expels fuel and dirt. Photos like this from JWST will assist additional our understanding of how stars evolve.

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Pictured right here in unprecedented element, a dying star expels fuel and dirt. Photos like this from JWST will assist additional our understanding of how stars evolve.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

And regardless of JWST being considerably extra highly effective than earlier telescopes, Rigby says astronomers can nonetheless use Hubble to enhance JWST’s observations.

“In many ways, JWST was built to do the things that Hubble can’t, so they play really well together,” Rigby stated. “The pitcher and the catcher on your baseball team do different things.”

The telescope has sufficient propellant onboard to final greater than 20 years in area, Rigby stated, so it is potential it may outlive its deliberate minimal mission of 5 years.

“I think that next year is going to be even more exciting than this year,” Rigby stated.

After all, it should take time to sift by way of the information the James Webb Space Telescope collects and see simply how a lot it might shift our understanding of the universe’s many mysteries.

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