The Webb Telescope is just getting started

By | December 31, 2022

The New York Times reports:

So far it’s been eye candy from heaven: The black vastness of space teeming with enigmatic, unfathomably distant blobs of light. Ghostly portraits of Neptune, Jupiter and other neighbors we thought we knew already. Nebulas and galaxies made visible by the penetrating infrared eyes of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The telescope, named for James Webb, the NASA administrator during the buildup to the Apollo moon landings, is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. It was launched on Christmas one year ago — after two trouble-plagued decades and $10 billion — on a mission to observe the universe in wavelengths no human eye can see. With a primary mirror 21 feet wide, the Webb is seven times as powerful as its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. Depending on how you do the accounting, one hour of observing time on the telescope can cost NASA $19,000 or more.

But neither NASA nor the astronomers paid all that money and political capital just for pretty pictures — not that anyone is complaining.

“The first images were just the beginning,” said Nancy Levenson, temporary director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs both Webb and the Hubble. “More is needed to turn them into real science.”

For three days in December, some 200 astronomers filled an auditorium at the institute to hear and discuss the first results from the telescope. An additional 300 or so watched online, according to the organizers. The event served as a belated celebration of the Webb’s successful launch and inauguration and a preview of its bright future.

One by one, astronomers marched to the podium and, speaking rapidly to obey the 12-minute limit, blitzed through a cosmos of discoveries. Galaxies that, even in their relative youth, had already spawned supermassive black holes. Atmospheric studies of some of the seven rocky exoplanets orbiting Trappist 1, a red dwarf star that might harbor habitable planets. (Data suggest that at least two of the exoplanets lack the bulky primordial hydrogen atmospheres that would choke off life as we know it, but they may have skimpy atmospheres of denser molecules like water or carbon dioxide.)

“We’re in business,” declared Bjorn Benneke of the University of Montreal, as he presented data of one of the exoplanets.

Megan Reiter of Rice University took her colleagues on a “deep dive” through the Cosmic Cliffs, a cloudy hotbed of star formation in the Carina constellation, which was a favorite early piece of sky candy. She is tracing how jets from new stars, shock waves and ionizing radiation from more massive nearby stars that were born boiling hot are constantly reshaping the cosmic geography and triggering the formation of new stars.

“This could be a template for what our own sun went through when it was formed,” Dr. Reiter said in an interview.

Between presentations, on the sidelines and in the hallways, senior astronomers who were on hand in 1989 when the idea of the Webb telescope was first broached congratulated one another and traded war stories about the telescope’s development. They gasped audibly as the youngsters showed off data that blew past their own achievements with the Hubble. [Continue reading…]

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