Ahead of the biggest premiere the astronomy world has ever seen, NASA has released the cosmic A-list that will appear through the lens of its colossal new space telescope.
And it’s not just the stars. There are galaxies, a planet too, and what promises to be the deepest insight into time humanity has ever been able to achieve.
On Tuesday, the first images from the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be shared with the world.
Only a handful of the thousands of scientists and engineers working on the project have seen them. But the words “spectacular” and “beautiful” are whispered among those who have done it.
In a preview before the main launch, NASA, the European and Canadian space agencies, which collaborated on the JWST, published a list of the five places in the universe that the telescope has imaged first.
The locations are not exactly known, but have been carefully chosen to showcase the capabilities of the new infrared telescope and its massive 6.5-meter gold-plated mirror.
The first is the Carina Nebula, a 50 light-year-wide cloud of dust and stars 1,000 light-years from Earth. It is one of the most beautiful objects in our galaxy. But it is also important to understand how we came to exist. The colossal cloud of dust and gas is one of the most active star-forming regions yet discovered. Our solar system likely formed in a place like this.
Astrophysicist Professor Martin Barstow from the University of Leicester said: “Infrared allows you to penetrate through that dust and gas.
“It will give us a whole new perspective.”
Star-forming regions are more than scientifically interesting, according to Dr. Jeffery Kargel of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.
“Not only are they beautiful, but they are philosophically mind-boggling and even spiritually moving as they reflect on the processes of creation and destruction, and the almost certain origins of life on many, many planets around many stars in the nebula.”
Arguably the most mind-boggling target is one little known outside the field of astronomy.
A region called SMACS 0723, where massive clusters of distant galaxies act to deflect light due to their enormous gravity. This “gravitational lensing” brings the earliest light in the universe into view.
We haven’t been able to see it before because the light is in the infrared spectrum, beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s optics, and invisible through our dusty atmosphere on Earth.
The prize, Professor Barstow said, is “first light”: the potential for JWST to capture the earliest light in the universe that occurred some 400 million years after the Big Bang.
“Webb is the only tool we have to do this,” said Professor Barstow.
Will JWST be able to distinguish any objects in the infrared penumbra? We will have to wait to find out.
An entirely new view of a group of colliding galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet will be featured, as well as the “cosmic smoke ring” left behind by an exploded star called the South Ring Nebula.
The final goal is miniscule compared to the others. A planet called WASP-96-b, more than 1000 light years from Earth, orbiting a star very similar to our Sun.
JWST measurements of this planet are expected to demonstrate its capabilities as a tool to search for life elsewhere in the universe.
“This will not be a visual spectacle, but it will be a scientific treasure,” Dr. Kargel said.
JWST will be able to study the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere in unprecedented detail by imaging it as it passes in front of its star.
Don’t get too excited: WASP-96-b is a Jupiter-like planet very close to its star, so it’s almost certainly scorched and lifeless.
These dark objects in the night sky can leave many people cold. But the excitement among astronomers, cosmologists and planetary scientists ahead of Tuesday’s big reveal is palpable.
“Tie up your brain, batten down the hatches and wait for your mind to fly. It’s going to be a Category 5,” Dr. Kargel said.