Webb telescope brings early galaxies, Jupiter into sharp focus



The James Webb Space Telescope, which performs excellently as it explores the universe, has astronomers scratching their heads. The very distant universe looks slightly different than expected.

The telescope, which was launched eight months ago and orbits the sun about a million miles from Earth, has captured images of extremely faint galaxies emitting their light in the first billion years or so after the Big Bang. Observing these “early” galaxies is one of the telescope’s main missions – to look deeper into space, and further back in time, than any previous telescope.

The first scientific results have emerged in recent weeks, and what the telescope has seen in the deepest space is a bit puzzling. Some of those distant galaxies are remarkably massive. A common assumption had been that early galaxies—those not long after the first stars ignited—would be relatively small and misshapen. Instead, some are large, bright, and beautifully textured.

The Webb telescope is amazing. But the universe is even more so.

“The models just don’t predict this,” Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said of the huge early galaxies. “How do you do this in the universe at such an early time? How do you form so many stars so quickly?”

This is not a cosmological crisis. What’s happening is a lot of rapid science, conducted “in real time,” as astrophysicist Jeyhan Kartaltepe of the Rochester Institute of Technology puts it. Data from the new telescope is pouring in, and she’s one of the legions of astronomers publishing new articles and quickly posting them online before peer review.

The Webb sees things that no one has ever seen in such sharp detail and at such enormous distances. Research teams across the planet are reviewing publicly released data and racing to spot the most distant galaxies or make other remarkable discoveries. Science often progresses at a stately pace, with knowledge increasing incrementally, but the Webb dumps trucks full of tantalizing data on scientists all at once. Preliminary estimates of distances will be refined upon further investigation.

Kartaltepe said she’s certainly not worried about any tension between astrophysical theory and what the Webb sees: “One day we might scratch our heads, but a day later, ‘Oh, this all makes sense now’.”

NASA unveils first images of James Webb Space Telescope

What has surprised? astronomer Dan Coe of the Space Telescope Science Institute are the number of beautifully shaped, disk-like galaxies.

“We thought the early Universe was a chaotic place where all these masses are star forming, and things are all jumbled up,” Coe said.

That assumption about the early Universe was partly due to observations by the Hubble Space Telescope, which revealed lumpy, irregularly shaped early galaxies. But Hubble observes in a relatively narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum, including “visible” light. Webb observes in the infrared and collects light beyond Hubble’s range. With Hubble, Coe said, “We missed all the colder stars and the older stars. We really only saw the hot young ones.”

The easiest explanation for those surprisingly massive galaxies is that, at least for some of them, there has been a miscalculation — perhaps through a trick of the light.

The distant galaxies are very red. They are, in astronomical jargon, “red-shifted”. The wavelengths of light from these objects have been stretched by the expansion of the universe. The ones that look the reddest — those that have the highest redshift — are believed to be the furthest away.

But dust can throw off the calculations. Dust can absorb blue light and make the object red. It could be that some of these very distant, highly redshifted galaxies are just very dusty, and not as far away (and as “young”) as they seem. That would realign the observations to what astronomers expected.

Or another explanation may come up. What is certain is that the $10 billion telescope — a joint effort between NASA and the space agencies of Canada and Europe — is currently providing new observations not only of those distant galaxies, but also of objects closer to home, such as Jupiter. , a giant asteroid and a newly discovered comet.

The latest Webb discovery was announced Thursday: Carbon dioxide has been detected in the atmosphere of a distant, giant planet called WASP-39 b. It is “the first definitive detection of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet,” said Knicole Colon, a Webb project scientist at NASA. Although WASP-39 b is considered far too hot to be habitable, the successful detection of carbon dioxide demonstrates the sharpness of Webb’s vision and holds promise for future exploration of distant planets that may harbor life.

The telescope is operated by engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The Mission Operations Center is located on the second floor of the institute, on the edge of the Johns Hopkins University campus.

On a recent morning, only three people manned the flight control room: operations controller Irma Aracely Quispe-Neira, ground systems engineer Evan Adams and command controller Kayla Yates. They sat in a row of workstations with large monitors loaded with data from the telescope.

Take a cosmic tour of the images captured by NASA’s Webb telescope

“We don’t normally recommend the action live,” Yates said. In other words, no one controls the telescope with a joystick or anything like that. It functions largely autonomously and adheres to an observation schedule that is uploaded about once a week. A command is sent from the flight control room to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. From there, the command travels to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and then to the Deep Space Network – radio antennas near Barstow, California, Madrid and Canberra, Australia. Depending on the Earth’s rotation, one of those antennas can send the command to the telescope.

Long gone from the Baltimore mission center are the crowds that attended the morning of the telescope’s launch last Christmas.

“It’s a testament to how well it works that we can go from several hundred people to just three of us,” Adams said.

The sighting scheme is largely determined by the desire to be efficient, and that often means looking at things that appear close together in the sky, even if they are billions of light years apart.

A visitor will be disappointed to realize that the flight control team does not see what the telescope sees. There is no big screen on which, for example, a comet or a galaxy or the Dawn of Time can be seen. But the flight control team can read out data describing the telescope’s orientation, for example, “32 degrees right ascension, 12 degrees declination.” And then consult a star chart to see where the telescope is pointing.

“It’s between Andromeda and whatever that other zodiac sign is,” Adams said.

‘Incredible’ Jupiter images revealed by NASA’s James Webb telescope

Here’s a sample of some Webb observations, which should yield new images and scientific reports in the coming months:

The Cartwheel System: A strikingly beautiful and rare “ring galaxy” about 500 million light-years away. The unusual structure is due to a collision with another galaxy. This was one of the first images processed by the Webb team to show what the telescope can do.

M16, the Eagle Nebula: This is a “planetary nebula” in our own galaxy that is famous for being home to a structure nicknamed the “Pillars of Creation,” which was imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. It became one of the most famous Hubble images, featuring three towering pillars of dust lit by hot, young stars outside the frame of the image, all oriented by NASA to produce what appears to the human eye to be a terrestrial landscape. The Webb will likely produce a similar framed image, but with new resolution and detail, thanks to its ability to collect light in the infrared wavelengths inaccessible to the Hubble.

Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon: It is the largest moon in the solar system and even bigger than the planet Mercury. Scientists believe it has a subterranean ocean with more water than all the oceans on Earth. Webb project scientist Klaus Pontopiddan said the telescope will look for plumes — geysers similar to what has been observed on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

C/2017 K2 comet: Discovered in 2017, this is an unusually large comet with a tail 500,000 miles long, heading toward the sun.

The Great Barred Spiral Galaxy: Officially “NGC-1365”, this is a classic beautiful “barred” galaxy – a spiral with a central bar of stars connecting two prominent, curved arms. It is about 56 million light-years away.

Trappist-1 planetary system: Seven planets orbit this star, and several are in the “habitable zone,” meaning they are at a distance from the star where water on the surface could be liquid. Astronomers want to know if these planets have atmospheres.

Draco and sculptor: These are globular dwarf galaxies close to the Milky Way. By studying their motion over a long period of time, astronomers hope to learn more about the presence of dark matter — which is invisible but has a gravitational signature.

That’s only a partial list. There is much to see out there.

“It’s nonstop, 24-7, just science flowing backwards,” said Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer and vice president for science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. “And it’s an enormous diversity of science. I saw the great red spot of Jupiter — but two hours later, now we’re looking at M33, this spiral galaxy. Two hours later, we are now looking at an exoplanet that I know by name. It’s really cool to see that.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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