Our view of the universe just got wider: The first image from NASA’s new space telescope unveiled on Monday is packed with galaxies and offers the deepest look into the cosmos ever captured.
The first image from the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is the farthest humanity has ever seen in time and distance, closer to the dawn of time and the edge of the universe. This image will be followed Tuesday by the release of four more shots of galactic beauty from the telescope’s initial exterior gazes.
The “deep field” image released at a brief White House event is filled with many stars, with massive galaxies in the foreground and faint, extremely distant galaxies glancing here and there. Part of the image is light shortly after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.
President Joe Biden marveled at the image which he said showed “the oldest documented light in the history of the universe from over 13 billion – let me repeat – 13 billion ago years. It’s hard to understand”.
The animated image with hundreds of specks, streaks, spirals and swirls of white, yellow, orange and red is just “a tiny speck of the universe”, said the administrator of NASA, Bill Nelson.
“What we saw today was the early universe,” Harvard astronomer Dimitar Sasselov said in a phone interview after the revelation.
Sasselov said he and his colleague Charles Alcock initially thought “we’ve seen this before”. Then they took a closer look at the image and said the result not only looked good, but was “worth the wait” for the much-delayed project.
And even more is coming on Tuesday. Images on tap include a view of a gas giant planet outside our solar system, two images of a nebula where stars are born and die in spectacular beauty, and an update to a classic image of five galaxies. tightly grouped dancing around each other.
The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope took off last December from French Guiana in South America. It reached its vantage point 1.6 million kilometers from Earth in January. Then the long process began of aligning the mirrors, cooling the infrared detectors enough to operate, and calibrating the scientific instruments, all protected by a tennis-court-sized sunshade that keeps the telescope cool.
The plan is to use the telescope to look back so far that scientists will get a glimpse of the early days of the universe around 13.7 billion years ago and zoom in on closer cosmic objects, even our own. solar system, with sharper focus.
How far back in 13 billion years does this first image go? NASA did not provide an estimate on Monday. Outside scientists have said these calculations will take time, but they are fairly certain that somewhere in the busy picture is a galaxy older than humanity has ever seen, probably 500 or 600 million years after the Big Bang.
“It takes a bit of time to unearth these galaxies,” said astrophysicist Garth Illingworth at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Those are the things you almost can’t see here, the littlest red dots.”
“It’s absolutely spectacular, absolutely incredible,” he added. “It’s everything we dreamed of in a telescope like this.”
Webb is considered the successor to the highly successful, but aging Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble dates back 13.4 billion years. He found the light wave signature of an extremely bright galaxy in 2016. Astronomers measure how far they look in light years, with a light year being 5.8 trillion miles (9.3 trillion kilometres) .
“Webb can see back in time to just after the Big Bang by looking for galaxies that are so far away that light has taken many billions of years to get from those galaxies to our telescopes,” said Jonathan Gardner, assistant scientist at the Webb project. at a press conference in June.
The deepest view of the cosmos “isn’t a record that will last very long,” project scientist Klaus Pontoppidan said during the briefing, as scientists are expected to use the Webb Telescope to get even deeper.
At 21 feet (6.4 meters), Webb’s gold-plated flower-shaped mirror is the tallest and most sensitive ever sent into space. It is made up of 18 segments, one of which was hit by a larger-than-expected micrometeoroid in May. Four previous micrometeoroid strikes on the mirror were smaller. Despite the impacts, the telescope continued to exceed mission requirements, with virtually no data loss, according to NASA.
NASA collaborates on Webb with the European and Canadian space agencies.
“I’m now really excited because this dramatic progress bodes well for reaching the ultimate prize for many astronomers like me: identifying ‘Cosmic Dawn’ – the moment when the universe was first bathed in starlight.” , Richard Ellis, professor of astrophysics at University College London, said by email.
AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn contributed.
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