After a first photo was released the day before, NASA on Tuesday revealed all of the first images from the most powerful space telescope ever designed, James Webb, images that mark the beginning of its scientific operations.
These operations have been anticipated for years by astronomers around the world. On the program of a live hour in which the images were revealed one after the other: two nebulae illustrating the life cycle of stars, an exoplanet and a compact cluster of galaxies.
“Each image is a new discovery,” said Nasa boss Bill Nelson at the beginning. “Each will give humanity a view of the universe we have never seen before.”
A first image from the telescope, illustrating the distant ages of the cosmos, was unveiled on Monday in the presence of US President Joe Biden, who hailed a “historic” moment.
Galaxies 13 billion years old
The detailed image shows galaxies that formed shortly after the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago.
Indeed, one of the primary missions of James Webb, a $10 billion engineering gem and the most powerful space telescope ever designed, is to explore the very young Universe. This first demonstration should give an overview of its capabilities in this area.
But it was just one of five destinations announced by NASA for this real surprise bag, which officially marks the beginning of the telescope’s scientific observations and whose contents have so far been carefully kept secret to build suspense.
Below: the images of two nebulae, very photogenic and gigantic clouds of gas and dust.
About 7,600 light-years away, the Carina Nebula illustrates star formation. It hosts many masses several times the size of our sun.
The Southern Ring Nebula is a so-called planetary nebula (though it has nothing to do with planets): it’s a huge cloud of gas surrounding a dying star.
Another target: Stephan’s quintet, a group of interacting galaxies.
The latest cosmic object whose observation was revealed on Tuesday is an exoplanet, ie a planet orbiting a different star than our sun, one of James Webb’s main lines of research.
It was not actually photographed but analyzed by spectroscopy, a technique used to determine the chemical composition of a distant object. In this case WASP-96 b, a giant planet composed mostly of gas.
By combining the data previously obtained thanks to other telescopes and those of James Webb, “we will probably be able to detect water vapor” in its atmosphere, estimated with AFP José A. Caballero, astronomer at the Centro de Astrobiologia in Spain and specialist in exoplanets.
This data “will be interesting for me to see the capabilities of the telescope and instruments,” he added, although he thinks this first exoplanet is a bit “boring” and is focusing on smaller and less hot ones.
James Webb was launched about six months ago, on Christmas Day, from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket, the result of a major international collaboration and in the works since the 1990s, located 1.5 million kilometers from away from the earth.
The release of these first images marks the beginning of an immense scientific adventure that would span many years and transform our understanding of the universe.
Researchers around the world have reserved observing time with James Webb, whose program for the first year of operation has already been carefully defined and published by a panel of experts.
The telescope has enough fuel for 20 years of operation. About 20,000 people around the world worked on this project, which led to enormous international collaboration.
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