Astronomer Says New Webb Space Telescope Images “Almost Brought Him to Tears”

The evolution of infrared astronomy, from Spitzer to WISE to JWST. Credit: Andras Gaspar

The scientific and astronomical communities are eagerly waiting for Tuesday, July 12th, to come around. That is the day when NASA promises to release the first images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)! According to a previous statement by NASA, these images will include the deepest views of the Universe ever taken, as well as spectra obtained from an exoplanet atmosphere. In another statement from a recent press conference, it was stated that the images were so beautiful they almost brought Thomas Zarbuchen – Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) – to tears!

The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful and complex observatory ever deployed, not to mention the most expensive, at $10 billion! Because of its complex system of mirrors and its advanced sun shield, the telescope had to be designed so that it could be folded up (origami style) to fit inside a payload fairing, then unfold once it reached space. To ensure everything would work, the telescope had to be rigorously tested, a process that caused numerous delays and cost overruns (a situation made worse by the COVID pandemic).

Engineering images of sharply focused stars in the field of view of each instrument demonstrate that the telescope is fully aligned and in focus. Credit: NASA/STScI

Since it launched on Christmas Day in 2021, the observatory has successfully unfolded, commissioned its science instruments, and reached the L2 Lagrange Point, where it will remain for its entire mission. It also successfully aligned all 18 of its segmented mirrors, which are arranged in a honeycomb configuration that measures 6.5 meters (more than 21 feet) in diameter – almost three times the size of Hubble’s primary mirror. Previously, NASA released test images the JWST took of a star 2,000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Ursa Major (HD 84406).

According to Zurbuchen, who saw the images during a Wednesday briefing with other NASA officials, the first-light images it has taken provide a “new worldview” into the cosmos. Addressing what it was like to see the first-light images at the Wednesday news conference, Zarbuchen said:

“The images are being taken right now. There is already some amazing science in the can, and some others are yet to be taken as we go forward. We are in the middle of getting the history-making data down. It’s really hard to not look at the Universe in a new light and not just have a moment that is deeply personal. It’s an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly releasing some of its secrets, and I would like you to imagine and look forward to that.”

During the news conference, NASA officials said that the images and other data would include the deepest-field image of the Universe ever taken. The previous record-holder was the image acquired as part of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which included 10,000 galaxies of various ages, colors, and distances in the direction of the constellation Fornax. The 100 oldest galaxies in the image (shown below) appear deep red and were dated to just 800 million years after the Big Bang, making them the most distant and oldest ever viewed.

This view of nearly 10,000 galaxies is called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Credit: NASA, ESA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team

The James Webb images peer even further into the cosmos and reveal what galaxies looked like just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. These earliest galaxies were instrumental in dispelling the “Cosmic Dark Ages,” a period where the Universe was permeated by neutral hydrogen atoms and therefore invisible to modern instruments. Astronomers know what the Universe looked like just prior to this period, thanks to the relic radiation from the Big Bang, which is visible to our instruments – the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

As a result, astronomers have been unable to see what the earliest galaxies looked like since their formation coincided with the Dark Ages. But thanks to its advanced infrared imaging capabilities, James Webb can pierce the veil of “darkness” and see what galaxies initially looked like. This will allow scientists to model and simulate the evolution of cosmic structures with far greater accuracy, which could also provide fresh insight into the role of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in cosmic evolution.

Another image will provide the public with something else they’ve never seen before (which James Webb is ideally suited to provide). This image will feature an exoplanet, as well as spectral data from its atmosphere obtained by its advanced suite of spectrographs. These instruments allow astronomers to observe chemical signatures from an distant planet by observing how light is absorbed (and at which wavelengths) in its atmosphere. These signatures will reveal the atmosphere’s composition, which could include oxygen gas, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, the very things we associate with “habitability.”

Even more exciting, these same observations could reveal traces of methane gas, ammonia, and other chemicals indicative of biological processes that we associate with life (aka. “biosignatures”). Last, but not least, the presence of chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons and others we associate with industrial processes would be seen as indications of advanced life (aka. “technosignatures”). In short, images by James Webb will allow astronomers to model the evolution of the cosmos, place tighter constraints on which exoplanets are “habitable,” and could even reveal that humanity is not alone in the Universe.

There are many other things that James Webb will study during its primary science operations (which will last until 2028) and its ten-year mission (which is expected to be extended to 20 years). This will include the dust and gas that make up the interstellar medium (ISM), debris disks around young stars, planetary systems in the process of formation, cooler objects like M-type (red dwarf) stars and brown dwarfs, and the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

And it all starts with these “first-light” images, which NASA says it plans to release on July 12th, starting at 10:30 AM EDT (08:30 AM PDT). According to NASA’s deputy administrator, Pam Melroy, these first images were emotionally overwhelming for her too. “What I have seen moved me, as a scientist, as an engineer, and as a human being,” she said. While the rest of us will have to wait another eight days, the teasers we’ve been treated to suggest that the years of delays, retesting, and cost overruns will totally be worth it!

You can check out the images by going to NASA’s JWST mission page.

Originally published on Universe Today.

AstronomyAstrophysicsJames Webb Space TelescopeNASAPopular
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  • Ancylla wijkstra

    Great stories. I enjoy studying science. Botany, ecology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, planets and space exploration, nature, animals, reptiles, fish, snakes, dinosaurs, birds, plants, bugs and much more.

  • david w. ferrin

    So, I have a gripe with how the Star in this paper is referred to. Matt use (HD 84406) and I assume he use this for an strict American readership, and Henry Draper cat. has not been updated to 2020 standards. Also, he did not tell us (the Star HIP 48034, HD 84406, Sao 14987) is a G5 main-sequence Star… I would like to know more… How about you…

  • Aaron W

    I wish these comparison images would show pics from the Herschel Space Observatory. But they don’t because they make the JWST not look like nearly as much of a step up. Because while it is leaps and bounds an improvement over other infrared observatories, it’s only a modest step-up from Herschel. JWST allure comes from its other science instruments, wide-spectrum and all that. The image quality however wasn’t a massive improvement over Herschel.

  • markhughw

    Love to see a comparison of the same shot taken by Hubble and Webb.

  • Paul M

    Herschel was looking much deeper into the infra-red, and as a result of the longer wavelengths was rather diffraction limited.
    JWST should get much cleaner images when observing very distant and faint objects, with the much greater light gathering capability.
    It’s a bit too early to judge I think. All we’ve seen so far are test shots.

  • Rowland Stevens

    to me just a ten billion ego trip over fuzzy pictures that mean what ever one wants to say they “might mean” . Knowing for the same reason no one can say they are wrong.

    but many can say who cares. We are 40 trillion in debt and so is every other country in huge debt. And when the economic chaos comes, you’ll be lucky to be able to pay the light bill for these types of projects.

  • K

    @MP

    While I agree that clickbait titles often have nothing to do with the article, in this case it is you that needs to read more carefully. This article says Zurcuchen was almost brought to tears (copied from the title of a linked article). If you lead the linked article, the cited article states the following:

    “Recounting his first encounter with data from Webb, Zurbuchen said he, too, was in awe of what the telescope had proven capable of. He said he almost cried when looking at the first photos taken by the new instrument”

  • James Conlon

    He will be crying when he finds out the JWST is fake and the pictures are just drawings and painting and $hit