The James Webb Space Telescope lit the year 2022 with dazzling images of the early post-Big Bang Universe, ushering in a new era in astronomy and untold revelations about the cosmos for years to come.
The most powerful observatory sent into space followed the Hubble telescope, which is still in operation, and began transmitting its first cosmic images in July.
“It’s essentially behaving better than expected in almost every area,” said Massimo Stiavelli, director of the Webb Mission Office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Scientists are already saying that the Webb telescope, now orbiting the Sun a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth, should last 20 years, twice its guaranteed lifetime.
“The instruments are more efficient, the optics sharper and more stable. We have more fuel and we use less fuel,” said Stiavelli.
Stability is crucial for image sharpness.
“Our targeting accuracy requirements were similar to Hubble’s. And we ended up doing seven times better,” added the head of the mission office.
The public’s appetite for the discoveries was fueled by the coloring of the telescope’s images.
Light from the most distant galaxies has been stretched from the visible spectrum, which is visible to the naked eye, to the infrared – which Webb can observe with unprecedented resolution.
This allows the telescope to detect the faintest glimmers from the distant Universe with unprecedented resolution, see through the veil of dust that obscures stars emerging in a nebula, and analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets, the stars outside our solar system circle.
“The first year (of observation) is a way to test the tool for the small rocky planets in the habitable zone that could potentially be like Earth,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy at Cornell University. “And the tests are beautiful. They are spectacular.”
Webb launched in late 2021 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, crowning a 30-year project by the US space agency NASA.
It took 10,000 people and $10 billion to launch the 6.2-ton observatory into space.
En route to final orbit, Webb deployed a five-layer sunshade the size of a tennis court, followed by a 6.5-meter primary mirror composed of 18 hexagonal, gold-coated segments, or petals.
Once calibrated to less than a millionth of a meter, the 18 petals began collecting the light-pulsing stars.
On July 12, the first images underscored Webb’s abilities, revealing thousands of galaxies, some from before the birth of the Universe, and a star-forming site in the Carina Nebula.
Jupiter has been imaged in incredible detail, which is expected to help understand how the giant gaseous planet works.
The blue, orange and gray tones of the images of the “Pillars of Creation”, huge pillars of dust where stars are born, are enchanting.
Scientists saw the revelations as an opportunity to rethink their models of star formation.
Researchers using the new observatory have found the most distant galaxies ever observed, one of which existed just 350 million years after the Big Bang around 13.8 billion years ago.
The galaxies appear with extreme luminosity and may have started forming 100 million years earlier than theories predicted.
“In the distant universe we have an excess of galaxies compared to models,” David Elbaz, scientific director for astrophysics at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, told AFP.
Another surprise was that where Hubble observed essentially irregularly shaped galaxies, the Webb telescope’s precision produces gorgeous spiral galaxies resembling our own.
This has led to considerations of a possible universal model that could hold one of the keys to star formation.
Webb also opened up a plethora of clusters of millions of stars that could be the potential missing link between the first stars and the first galaxies.
In the field of exoplanets, Webb focused on a distant gas giant called WASP-96 b.
Nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth and about half the mass of Jupiter, WASP-96 b orbits its star in just 3.4 days.
Webb also provided the first confirmation that carbon dioxide is present in the atmosphere of another exoplanet, WASP 39-b.
But for Stiavelli, “some of the big things have either not yet been observed or have not yet been revealed”.
© 2022 AFP