Our view of the universe just expanded: The first image from NASA’s new space telescope unveiled Monday is brimming with galaxies and offers the deepest look of the cosmos ever captured.
The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope’s first image is the most distant humanity has ever seen. This includes time and distance. That image will be followed Tuesday by the release of four more galactic beauty shots from the telescope’s initial outward gazes.
The “deep field” image released at a White House event is filled with lots of stars, with massive galaxies in the foreground and faint and extremely distant galaxies peeking through here and there. The light is from 13.8 billion year ago, not long after the Big Bang.
“We’re going to give humanity a new view of the cosmos,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters last month in a briefing. “And it’s a view that we’ve never seen before.”
On Tuesday, you will see a view from a huge gaseous planet beyond our solar system. Two images from a nebula are also available. A classic image showing five closely clustered galaxies dancing around one another is updated.
The world’s biggest and most powerful space telescope rocketed away last December from French Guiana in South America. The telescope reached its peak point at 1 million miles, or 1.6 million kilometers from Earth. It was launched in January. It was now time to align the mirrors, make the infrared detectors freeze enough for operation, and calibrate science instruments. All this took place under a large sunshade that protects the telescope from heat.
Scientists will use the telescope for a far-reaching view of the origins of the universe, around 13.7billion years ago. They also plan to focus the telescope on more distant cosmic objects with sharper focus, such as our own solar system.
Webb was the successor to Hubble’s highly successful and aging Hubble space telescope. Hubble has seen as far as 13.4 Billion years back. The light wave signature for an exceptionally bright galaxy was discovered by Hubble in 2016. Astronomers determine how far they can look back in light years. A light year is 5.8 trillion mile (9.3 trillion km).
“Webb can see backwards in time to just after the Big Bang by looking for galaxies that are so far away that the light has taken many billions of years to get from those galaxies to our telescopes,” said Jonathan Gardner, Webb’s deputy project scientist said during the media briefing.
Is that the first picture? Klaus Pontoppidan, project scientist, said that astronomers will perform complex calculations over the coming days to determine how far back these galaxies are.
The deepest view of the cosmos “is not a record that will stand for very long,” Pontoppidan said, since scientists are expected to use the telescope to go even deeper.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief said when he saw the images he got emotional and so did his colleagues: “It’s really hard to not look at the universe in new light and not just have a moment that is deeply personal.”
At 21 feet (6.4 meters), Webb’s gold-plated, flower-shaped mirror is the biggest and most sensitive ever sent into space. It’s comprised of 18 segments, one of which was smacked by a bigger than anticipated micrometeoroid in May. The mirror had been hit by four previous micrometeoroid impacts that were much smaller. NASA reports that the telescope continued to meet mission requirements despite the impact. There was barely any data loss.
NASA collaborates with Canadian and European space agencies on Webb.
“I’m now really excited as this dramatic progress augurs well for reaching the ultimate prize for many astronomers like myself: pinpointing “Cosmic Dawn” — the moment when the universe was first bathed in starlight,” Richard Ellis, professor of astrophysics at University College London, said via email.
AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn contributed.
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