What is the James Webb Space Telescope and why are the new images so important?

The first deep-field image from the Webb Telescope published on Monday, July 11 (NASA)

After years of waiting, the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope are being made public, beginning with the first Webb image of deep space revealed by the US president, the deepest anyone has ever looked back in time.

And NASA is set to reveal more images of Webb starting at 10:30 am EDT on the space agency’s website.

The images are stunning, beautiful and represent an incredible technical achievement. But they also represent an amazing human achievement, according to Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope: the culmination of decades of work by scientists, engineers, and technicians, and a billion-dollar return on investment. The images usher in decades of more science to come that will tell us more than ever about where humanity came from and where we are going.

“[Webb] it is a positive example of what we as a species can do when people of good faith work across national borders to share a dream and dare to do amazing things,” said Dr. Hammel. the independent In an interview. “Humanity is better for it.”

Conceptual work on what would become the Webb Telescope began in 1996, later dubbed the Next Generation Space Telescope, the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990.

But Webb always intended to go beyond Hubble’s capabilities, starting with a much larger mirror, which allowed Webb to collect more light to see more distant and fainter objects. Webb’s primary mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter compared to Hubble’s mirror of only 2.4 meters in diameter, according to cosmologist Michael Gladders of the University of Chicago, which could generate sharper images than Hubble and bring instruments to seek answers fundamental questions about life and life. the Universe in greater detail than ever.

“JWST will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos on a huge variety of scales,” he said, “from the properties of planets orbiting other nearby stars, to the first stars that formed from primordial gas in the dark ages of the universe. , Not long ago. after the Big Bang”.

The farthest galaxies in Webb’s deep-field image released Monday are about 13 billion years old, but Webb will go further. Where Hubble has photographed galaxies forming around 480 million years after the Big Bang, Webb will eventually photograph galaxies forming within 200 million years of the Big Bang.

It’s that moment of viewing, of which Monday’s image is just a task of things to come, that hints at how Webb could change our understanding of how life, how everything, came to be.

“What happened after the Big Bang?” Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist and senior Webb project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center John Mather said in a statement. “How did the expanding universe cool down and form black holes, galaxies, stars, planets, and people?”

The full set of the first images from Webb to be released Tuesday will also offer clues about how the instrument could change human understanding of our place in the universe.

In addition to sharper, more detailed images of previously captured Hubble targets such as Carina and the Southern Wheel Nebulae, the suite will include the light spectrum of exoplanet WASP-96 b, a gas giant about half the size of Jupiter, about 1150 light . Earth years. Webb’s spectrograph will split starlight passing through WASP-96 b’s atmosphere into its constituent frequencies, which scientists can use to characterize the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

Applied to the more than 5,000 exoplanets discovered so far, Webb will have possibly the best chance yet of detecting atmospheric biosignatures of extraterrestrial life, organisms that alter the atmosphere of another world in the same way that the first microbes changed Earth’s atmosphere. by producing oxygen.

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