The most powerful space telescope ever built is now performing beyond the expectations of its American, Canadian and European creators. It can see deep into space and time, but one thing it does not see, at least not yet, is the eclipse of Western scientific and technological expertise.
Last week, NASA released fantastic images of distant galaxies taken by the near-infrared camera on the James Webb Space Telescope, which orbits the sun 1.5 million kilometers from earth. Converted from infrared electromagnetic radiation that we can’t see into color photographs in visible light, they are works of science and art.
The photographs were created from digital data beamed back from the telescope. Image processing software and filters were used to turn the colorless data into red, green and blue images, which were then combined to create full-color photos. The red corresponds to the longest wavelength infrared data, the blue to the shortest.
Containing a vast amount of scientific information, they are also reminiscent of the paintings of American artist Sam Francis, who worked from the 1950s through the 1980s. Art prefigured but was outrun by science.
On July 11, the first color photo from the Webb was released by President Joe Biden at the White House. Called “Webb’s First Deep Field,” it is an image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. As explained by NASA administrator Bill Nelson:
“Webb’s First Deep Field is not only the first full-color image from the James Webb Space Telescope, it’s the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe, so far. This image covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. It’s just a tiny sliver of the vast universe.”
Yet, in the words of NASA, “it is teeming with thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared.”
Thousands of galaxies behind a grain of sand. An ocean in a drop of water. Better focus on the practical implications and possibilities rather than succumb to vertigo.
In 1959, American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman gave a lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he talked about the possibility of manipulating individual atoms with nanoscale machines. Now, thanks to the Webb, we have a better view of how much room there is at the top.
In the calculations of NASA, the image of SMACS 0723 shows the galaxy cluster as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. But Nelson told the press that the Webb can see much farther back in time than that:
“Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. And that light that you are seeing on one of those little specks has been traveling for over 13 billion years. And by the way, we’re going back further, because this is just the first image. They’re going back about 13 and a half billion years. And since we know the Universe is 13.8 billion years old, you’re going back almost to the beginning.”
(We might believe that’s the age of the universe, but do we really know?)
The project began with the Next Generation Space Telescope in 1996. It was renamed the James Webb Space Telescope in 2002. James Webb was administrator of NASA under presidents Kennedy and Johnson during the 1960s, overseeing the Mercury and Gemini manned space flight programs and the beginning of the Apollo.
Following conceptual studies, designs, delays, cost overruns and redesigns, construction was finally completed in 2016. The telescope, instruments and other components were then assembled, tested and prepared for launch, a process that took another five years.
Persistence paid off. Joseph DePasquale, senior data imaging developer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told NewScientist that “Webb, with its precision and its resolution, is able to bring out a level of detail that we have never been able to see in the infrared universe.”
Referring to the first image revealed by President Biden on July 11, NASA said the Webb Space Telescope has “delivered the deepest infrared images of the universe yet. This deep field … is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, [over a period] totaling 12.5 hours – achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks.”
For more than 30 years, following its launch in 1990, Hubble was the world’s largest and most celebrated space telescope. But its mirror is only 2.4 meters in diameter compared with 6.5 meters for the Webb, which has a light-collecting area 6.25 times larger and a field of view more than 15 times larger.
Furthermore, Hubble travels in low-earth orbit where its view is regularly blocked by the earth itself, while Webb’s orbit is at the second Lagrange point, beyond the moon. Lagrange points are named for the Italian-French mathematician and astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who analyzed the phenomenon in question in the 18th century.
As explained by NASA, “There are five so-called “Lagrange Points” – areas where gravity from the sun and Earth balance the orbital motion of a satellite. Putting a spacecraft at any of these points allows it to stay in a fixed position relative to the Earth and sun with a minimal amount of energy needed for course correction.”
Webb’s position at L2 permits it to stay in continuous communication with NASA’s Deep Space Network of equidistant radio antennas situated in California, Australia and Spain. In routine operations, there is an uplink of command sequences and a downlink of data each day.
Hubble was designed to observe ultraviolet, visible light with limited access to near-infrared spectra, whereas the Webb was designed to receive red and near-to-mid-infrared spectra. This enables Webb to see more distant objects with greater clarity, looking through clouds of dust that are opaque to visible light telescopes at the infrared detail behind.
This can be seen in Webb’s First Deep Field and in three of four additional images released on July 12. These, as presented by NASA, are:
Carina Nebula: Webb’s look at the ‘Cosmic Cliffs’ in the Carina Nebula unveils the earliest, rapid phases of star formation that were previously hidden. Looking at this star-forming region in the southern constellation Carina, as well as others like it, Webb can see newly forming stars and study the gas and dust that made them.
Stephan’s Quintet: Webb’s view of this compact group of galaxies, located in the constellation Pegasus, pierced through the shroud of dust surrounding the center of one galaxy, to reveal the velocity and composition of the gas near its supermassive black hole. Now, scientists can get a rare look, in unprecedented detail, at how interacting galaxies are triggering star formation in each other and how the gas in these galaxies is being disturbed.
Southern Ring Nebula: This planetary nebula, an expanding cloud of gas that surrounds a dying star, is approximately 2,000 light years away. Here, Webb’s powerful infrared eyes bring a second dying star into full view for the first time. From birth to death as a planetary nebula, Webb can explore the expelling shells of dust and gas of aging stars that may one day become a new star or planet.
The fourth image demonstrates Webb’s ability to scan planets in distant solar systems:
WASP-96b (spectrum): Webb’s detailed observation of this hot, puffy planet outside our solar system reveals the clear signature of water, along with evidence of haze and clouds that previous studies of this planet did not detect. With Webb’s first detection of water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, it will now set out to study hundreds of other systems to understand what other planetary atmospheres are made of.
And what can be done in other solar systems can also be done in our own. The Webb has already transmitted images of the planet Jupiter and its moons. A NASA blog quoted Bryan Holler, a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore:
“Combined with the deep field images released the other day, these images of Jupiter
demonstrate the full grasp of what Webb can observe, from the faintest, most distant observable galaxies to planets in our own cosmic backyard that you can see with the naked eye from your actual backyard.”
The Webb project is led by NASA, working in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The development of the telescope was handled by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
The prime contractor for its manufacture was Northrup-Grumman. The camera was designed and built at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, in partnership with the University of Arizona.
Other instruments include a near-infrared spectrograph, a mid-infrared instrument and a fine guidance sensor/near-infrared imager and spectrograph. These and the camera are packaged within an integrated science instrument module, which also contains cooling systems and a command and data handling system.
The telescope and the instruments are protected by a solar shield the size of a tennis court. In order to detect the faint infrared radiation from distant space, they must operate below 50 degrees Kelvin (-223 degrees Centigrade).
The telescope was launched into space on an Ariane V rocket on December 25, 2021, from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. In addition to the launch vehicle, the Europeans contributed scientific instruments to the project. The Canadians supplied instruments and sensors. The telescope is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Webb project has been an extremely complicated process involving the design and production of precision components, sophisticated system integration, coordination of several organizations across North America, Europe and South America, and ability to overcome numerous obstacles over a period of more than 25 years. Keeping it operational will also be a challenge. Those inclined to write off the West should keep that in mind.
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Photos can be found here, in the Webb Telescope First Images Gallery, and elsewhere on NASA’s website.