’60 Minutes’ investigates deep space and the James Webb Space Telescope

Since NASA shared the first five images from the James Webb Space Telescope last July, astronomers have been busy using the telescope to study the cosmos and uncover new information about the origins of the universe. Scott Pelley took a closer look at Webb and his footage in the latest episode of “60 Minutes.”

“NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has barely opened its eyes, and the universe is new. More mysterious, more beautiful than the dreams of mankind,” says Pelley. The largest space telescope ever built, Webb was launched into space on Christmas Day 2021 from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch complex in French Guiana.

Webb’s journey to the second Lagrange point (L2) took about a month, and the $10 billion space telescope is about a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. From his orbit around the Sun, Webb can look down to “the origin of everything,” Pelley says.

Pelley sat down with astrophysicist Brant Robertson to discuss Webb’s JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES) image. Robertson, who works at the University of California, Santa Cruz, helps lead the JADES team.

Robertson explains that all of the thousands of dots in the JADES image are galaxies, some of which are larger than the Milky Way galaxy. The image contains about 130,000 galaxies, half of which have never been seen before.

“This image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope highlights the region studied by the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES). This area is found in and around the ultra-deep field of the Hubble Space Telescope. The scientists used Webb’s NIRCam instrument to observe the field in nine different infrared wavelength ranges. From these images, the team looked for faint galaxies visible in the infrared but whose spectra cut off abruptly at a critical wavelength. They made additional observations (not shown here) with Webb’s NIRspec instrument to measure the redshift of each galaxy and reveal the properties of gas and stars in those galaxies. | Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb) / Science: Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), S. Tacchella (Cambridge), E. Curtis-Lake (UOH), S. Carniani (Scuola Normale Superiore ), Collaboration JADES. The full resolution image is available on Webb’s website.

“We’ve discovered the farthest galaxy in the universe, the farthest from us that we currently know,” Robertson says, zooming in on a small red speck in the JADES image.

“This galaxy is over 33 billion light-years away,” Robertson says. According to Webb, the galaxy is only about 320 million years after the Big Bang.

While the distant, ancient galaxy looks like a simple red blotch to many, to astronomers it’s packed with information. Scientists can analyze the spectrum of the galaxy and learn more about its star formation, the number of stars in the galaxy, and the typical age of stars in the galaxy.

“The heartbeat of this galaxy is racing,” Robertson says excitedly.

Pelley then explains Webb’s origins, including an incredible behind-the-scenes look at Webb right before he was packed into a rocket and launched into space in late 2021.

JWST versus Hubble
Reddit user Whatevery1sthinking created this GIF comparing the capabilities of Webb and Hubble.

After Webb’s launch, scientists and engineers went through a painstaking process of configuring and testing Webb’s onboard instruments. Even Webb’s test footage turned out spectacular.

“The whole sky was filled with galaxies, there was no empty sky. That’s when I thought, ‘This telescope is going to be phenomenal,’ says Matt Mountain, who runs Webb’s operations as President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

“Every image we take now, we see galaxies everywhere,” Mountain continues. “This tells us that the universe is full of galaxies.” Mountain explains that when people look at the night sky, they must now notice that it’s full of galaxies rather than stars.

“There’s no empty sky with James Webb. That’s what we found out,” Mountain says.

Dan Milisavljevic of Purdue University studies exploded stars and Webb turned out to be a treasure trove for his research.

“Every time there is a supernova explosion, it produces the raw materials necessary for life. The iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the oxygen we breathe, all of that is made in the supernova,” says Milisavljevic.

“[Webb helps us understand] what’s going on inside the explosion that we couldn’t see because it only comes out in infrared light,” he continues.

JWST Hull Nebula
Carina Nebula | NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Scientists Alyssa Pagan and Joseph DePasquale explain that Webb’s images generally look like a blank screen at first. The beautiful images released by NASA start out considerably duller and less colorful until experts like Pagan and DePasquale combine the imagery data at their disposal.

A detailed article on Webb’s website explains the image processing performed by the scientists.

Erica Nelson of the University of Colorado at Boulder leads a team that may have used Webb to crack the origins of the universe theory.

A mosaic collected by James Webb of a region of space near the Big Dipper, with insets showing the location of six new candidate galaxies since the dawn of the universe. | NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology). Image processing: G. Brammer (Cosmic Dawn Center of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen).

“Either it’s wrong or it’s a huge discovery,” she says. “And we think that’s a huge discovery.”

Nelson is studying what could be five giant galaxies that appear to have formed “far too quickly” after the Big Bang. If the team confirms its discovery, astronomers will have to revisit the timeline of galaxy formation.

The James Webb Space Telescope has already been used for important scientific discoveries about a year into its life in space. It’s impossible to predict what Webb will see next, but there’s no doubt it will be something incredible.

To make up for what Webb has seen so far, PetaPixel posted a preview of the best Webb images of 2022.

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