Science

The Webb Telescope flexes its muscles with this deep, deep view into space

In the images above and below, pretty much all you see is a galaxy.

And that’s just a small patch of sky seen by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Whether it’s a breathtaking spiral or a more distant fuzzy point of light, every galaxy is full of intrigue. And each is “surely filled with billions and billions of planets”, tweeted(Opens in a new tab) astronomer Paul Byrne.

This scene is from a famous part of the cosmos called “Hubble Deep Field”. This is where the legendary Hubble telescope, the size of a school bus, peered into a piece of sky(Opens in a new tab) barely 1/13th the diameter of the moon as seen from Earth, showing the people of our planet a telling cosmic view. Now astronomers have turned the most powerful space telescope ever built, Webb, into a deep field. What they saw demonstrates the instrument’s unprecedented power and ability to capture riches of cosmic insight.

It took more than 11 days for Hubble to capture its historic deep field, located in the constellation Ursa Major near the Big Dipper’s handle, in such high resolution. “In 2022, Webb only took about 20 hours to observe this same field in high resolution,” says NASA(Opens in a new tab).

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Scientists have good reason to return to this deeply studied patch of space. They want to know how the first galaxies formed billions of years ago. “We don’t know exactly how galaxies came to be what they are today,” NASA explained(Opens in a new tab). “Through his sensitivity, Webb helps astronomers search for early galaxies and better understand star formation and other galactic properties in the early universe.”

To visualize these early galaxies, astronomers used the Webb Telescope’s main imaging camera, the Near Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, which can detect some of the faintest lights in the cosmos. The specialized instrument allows scientists to discover where new stars are being created in these distant galaxies, particularly by seeing “hot, ionized gas”. Many newly formed stars emit intense radiation that excites the abundant hydrogen atoms in the surrounding gas clouds, providing evidence of star formation.

The detailed view of these distant cosmos, taken under a day of observation(Opens in a new tab)are also simply remarkable.

“I think seeing how beautiful the images look and how high quality they ended up being was definitely a highlight.”

“I think seeing how beautiful the images look and how high-quality they ended up being was definitely a highlight,” Christina Williams, an astronomer at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab, said in a statement.(Opens in a new tab). “We calculated that we would be able to do things like that, but it was different seeing it and having the real data in practice.”

Thousands of galaxies in deep space, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI / Christina Williams (NSF’s NOIRLab) / S. Tacchella (Cambridge) / Michael Maseda (UW-Madison) // IMAGE PROCESSING: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

The Powerful Capabilities of the Webb Telescope

The Webb Telescope, a scientific collaboration between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency, is designed to peer into the deepest cosmos and reveal unprecedented information about the early universe. But it also means scrutinizing intriguing planets in our galaxy, and even the planets in our solar system.

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Here’s how Webb is doing unprecedented things, and probably will for decades:

  • Giant mirror: Webb’s mirror, which catches the light, is over 21 feet in diameter. It’s more than two and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant ancient objects. As described above, the telescope scans stars and galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

    “We’re going to see the very first stars and galaxies that formed,” Jean Creighton, astronomer and director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Mashable in 2021.

  • Infrared view: Unlike Hubble, which largely sees light visible to us, Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it sees light in the infrared spectrum. It allows us to see much more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths(Opens in a new tab) than visible light, so that light waves glide more efficiently through cosmic clouds; light does not collide with these dense particles as often and is not scattered by them. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared vision can penetrate places that Hubble cannot.

    “It lifts the veil,” Creighton said.

  • Observing distant exoplanets: The Webb Telescope carries specialized equipment called spectrometers(Opens in a new tab) which will revolutionize our understanding of these distant worlds. The instruments can decipher which molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets – whether gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look at exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we’ll find.

    “We could learn things we never thought of,” Mercedes López-Morales, exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian(Opens in a new tab)told Mashable in 2021.

    Already, astronomers have managed to find intriguing chemical reactions on a planet 700 light-years away, and the observatory has begun looking at one of the most anticipated places in the cosmos: the rocky Earth-sized planets of the TRAPPIST solar system.


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