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Webb telescope brings early galaxies, Jupiter into sharp focus


The James Webb Space Telescope, working splendidly as it surveys the universe, has astronomers scratching their heads. The very distant universe looks a little different than expected.

The telescope, launched eight months ago and orbiting the sun a million miles from Earth, has been capturing images of extremely faint galaxies that emitted their light in the first billion years after the Big Bang. Observing these “primitive” galaxies is one of the telescope’s main missions: to see deeper into space and further back in time than any telescope before it.

The first scientific results have emerged in recent weeks, and what the telescope has seen in deeper space is a bit puzzling. Some of those distant galaxies are surprisingly massive. A general assumption had been that the first galaxies, which formed shortly after the first stars ignited, would be relatively small and misshapen. Instead, some of them are large, bright and well structured.

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, Santa Cruz, said of massive early galaxies. “How do you do this in the universe at such an early time? How do you form so many stars so fast?

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

An early contributor to the James Webb Space Telescope explains how newly released images allow us to explore the origins of the universe. (Video: Hadley Green, Hope Davison/The Washington Post)

The Webb is seeing things that no one has ever seen in such detail and at such tremendous distances. Research teams from around the globe analyze the published data and compete to spot the most distant galaxies or make other remarkable discoveries. Science often advances at a majestic pace, advancing knowledge incrementally, but Webb is unloading truckloads of compelling data on scientists all at once. Preliminary distance estimates will be refined with further examination.

Kartaltepe said she’s certainly not worried about any tension between astrophysical theory and what Webb is seeing: “We might be scratching our heads one day, but a day later, ‘Oh, this all makes sense now.'”

NASA reveals the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope

what has surprised Astronomer Dan Coe of the Space Telescope Science Institute are the number of disk-shaped galaxies in a pleasing way.

“We thought the early universe was this chaotic place where there are all these star-forming clusters, and everything is jumbled up,” Coe said.

That assumption about the early universe was due in part to observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope, which revealed clumpy, irregularly shaped early galaxies. But Hubble observes in a relatively narrow portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, including “visible” light. Webb observes in the infrared, gathering light outside of Hubble’s range. With Hubble, Coe said: “We were missing all the coolest stars and the oldest stars. We were really just looking at the hot young guys.”

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

Distant galaxies are very red. They are, in astronomical parlance, “redshifted.” The wavelengths of light from these objects have been stretched out by the expansion of the universe. The ones that appear the reddest, having the highest redshift, are assumed to be the furthest away.

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

Or some other explanation might come up. What is certain is that, for now, the $10 billion telescope, a joint effort of NASA and Canadian and European space agencies, is providing novel observations not only of distant galaxies but also of objects closer to home. like Jupiter, a giant asteroid and a newly discovered comet.

the Webb’s Last Discovery was announced Thursday: Carbon dioxide was detected in the atmosphere of a distant giant planet called WASP-39 b. It’s “the first definitive detection of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet,” according to Knicole Colon, Webb project scientist at NASA. Although WASP-39 b is considered too hot to be habitable, the successful detection of carbon dioxide demonstrates the acuity of Webb’s vision and promises future examination of distant planets that could support life.

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

On a recent morning, only three people were in 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 inside the images captured by NASA’s Webb Telescope

“We don’t normally direct live action,” Yates said. In other words, nobody controls the telescope with a joystick or anything like that. It operates largely autonomously, fulfilling a loaded observing schedule 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 NASA’s 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 rotation of the Earth, one of those antennas can transmit the command to the telescope.

Gone are the crowds of people that were present the morning of the telescope’s launch last Christmas at the mission’s operations center in Baltimore.

“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 observing program is largely determined by the desire to be efficient, and that often means looking at things that appear close to each other in the sky, even if they are billions of light-years away from each other.

A visitor will be disappointed to find that the flight control team does not see what the telescope sees. There is no big screen showing, say, a comet, a galaxy, or the dawn of time. But the flight control team can read data that describes the telescope’s orientation, for example, “32 degrees right ascension, 12 degrees declination.” And then consult a star map to see where the telescope is pointing.

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

‘Incredible’ images of Jupiter revealed by NASA’s James Webb Telescope

Here is a sample of some of Webb’s observations, which should produce new images, as well as scientific reports, in the coming months:

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

M16, the Eagle Nebula: This is the famous home of a structure dubbed the “Pillars of Creation” that was photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. It became one of Hubble’s most famous images, showing three towering dust plumes illuminated by hot young stars outside the image frame, all oriented by NASA to produce what appears to the human eye as a terrestrial landscape. Webb will presumably produce a similarly framed image but with new resolution and detail, thanks to the ability to gather light at infrared wavelengths inaccessible to Hubble.

Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon: It is the largest moon in the solar system and is even larger than the planet Mercury. Scientists believe that it has an underground ocean with more water than all the oceans on Earth. Webb project scientist Klaus Pontopiddan said the telescope will search for plumes, geysers similar to those seen on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

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

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

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

Draco and the sculptor: These are dwarf spheroidal galaxies close to the Milky Way. By studying its 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 is only a partial list. There is a lot to see out there.

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


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