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Webb telescope brings early galaxies, Jupiter, into sharp focus

Webb telescope brings early galaxies, Jupiter, into sharp focus
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That James Webb Space Telescopewhich performs great as it performs examines the universe, has astronomers scratching their heads. The very far away universe looks a little different than expected.

The telescope, launched eight months ago and orbiting the Sun about a million miles from Earth, has captured images of extremely faint galaxies that emitted their light around the first billion years after the Big Bang. Observing these “early” galaxies is one of the telescope’s main tasks – looking deeper into space and further into the past than any previous telescope.

The first scientific results have surfaced in recent weeks, and what the deep-space telescope has seen is a little puzzling. Some of these distant galaxies are strikingly massive. A common assumption was that early galaxies – which formed not long after the first stars were ignited – would be relatively small and bulky. Instead, some of them are big, bright, and beautifully textured.

The Webb telescope is amazing. But the universe is even more.

“The models just don’t predict that,” said Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, of the massive early galaxies. “How do you do that at such an early point in the universe? How do you form so many stars so quickly?”

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

The Webb sees things no one has ever seen in such sharp detail and from such tremendous distances. Research teams around the world look at publicly released data and try to discover the most distant galaxies or make other notable discoveries. Science often advances at a stately pace, gradually expanding knowledge, but the Webb suddenly pours out truckloads of tantalizing data on scientists. Preliminary range estimates will be refined upon closer inspection.

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

NASA unveils the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope

What surprised Astronomer Dan Coe of the Space Telescope Science Institute is the many beautifully formed, disc-shaped galaxies.

“We thought the early Universe was a chaotic place, where there’s all these clumps of star formation and it’s all a mess,” Coe said.

This assumption about the early Universe was due in part to Hubble Space Telescope observations that revealed clumpy, irregularly shaped early galaxies. But Hubble observes in a relatively narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum, including “visible” light. Webb observes in the infrared, gathering light beyond Hubble’s range. With Hubble, Coe said, “We were missing all the colder stars and the older stars. We really only saw the hot boys.”

The simplest explanation for these surprisingly massive galaxies is that at least some of them have been misjudged – perhaps due to a light trick.

The distant galaxies are very red. They are “redshifted” in astronomical jargon. The wavelengths of light from these objects have been stretched by the expansion of the universe. The ones that look the reddest – those that show the highest redshift – are probably the furthest away.

But dust can be thrown off the calculations. Dust can absorb blue light and redden the object. It could be that some of these very distant, highly redshifted galaxies are just very dusty and not really as distant (and “young”) as they appear. That would align the observations with astronomers’ expectations.

Or another explanation could emerge. What is certain is that the $10 billion telescope – a joint effort by NASA and the space agencies of Canada and Europe – is for now provide new observations not only from those far away galaxies but also from objects closer to home like Jupitera giant asteroid and a newly discovered comet.

That latest Webb discovery was announced on Thursday: Carbon dioxide has been detected in the atmosphere of a distant giant planet called WASP-39 b. It is “the first definitive detection of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere,” according to Knicole Colon, a Webb Project scientist at NASA. Although WASP-39b is considered far too hot to be habitable, the successful detection of carbon dioxide demonstrates the sharpness of Webb’s vision and promises future studies of distant planets that could harbor life.

The telescope is controlled by engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The Mission Operations Center is located 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 manned the flight control room: Operations Controller Irma Aracely Quispe-Neira, Ground Systems Engineer Evan Adams, and Command Controller Kayla Yates. They sat at a row of workstations with large monitors loaded with data the telescope.

Take a cosmic tour through images captured by NASA’s Webb Telescope

“We don’t typically direct the action live,” Yates said. In other words, no one controls the telescope with a joystick or anything like that. It works largely autonomously and fulfills an observing schedule uploaded about once a week. A command is sent from the flight control room to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. From there, 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 Earth’s rotation, one of these antennas can send the command to the telescope.

Long gone are the crowds that attended the Mission Operations Center in Baltimore that morning Launch of the telescope last christmas.

“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 schedule is largely driven by a desire to be efficient, and that often means looking at things that appear close together in the sky, even if they’re billions of light-years apart.

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, for example, a comet or a galaxy or the dawn of time. But the flight control team can read data that describes the orientation of the telescope — for example, “32 degrees right ascension, 12 degrees declination.” And then consult a star chart 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 selection of some Webb observations that should generate new images and scientific reports in the coming months:

The Cartwheel Galaxy: A strikingly beautiful and rare ‘Ring’ galaxy, approximately 500 million light-years distant. Its unusual structure is due to a collision with another galaxy. This was one of the first images edited by the Webb team to show what the telescope can do.

M16, the Eagle Nebula: This is a “planetary nebula” in our own galaxy known to be home to a structure nicknamed the “Pillars of Creation” imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. It has become one of Hubble’s most famous images, showing three towering dust pillars illuminated by hot, young stars outside the frame of the image, all aligned by NASA to produce what appears to the human eye to be terrestrial landscape looks like. The Webb is likely to produce a similarly framed image, but with new resolution and detail thanks to its ability to collect light in infrared wavelengths inaccessible to Hubble.

Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon: It is the largest moon in the solar system and even larger than the planet Mercury. Scientists believe there is a subterranean ocean with more water than all of Earth’s oceans. Webb project scientist Klaus Pontopiddan said the telescope will look for plumes – geysers similar to those discovered on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

C/2017 Comet K2: Discovered in 2017, this is an unusually large comet with a 800,000-kilometer tail heading toward the Sun.

The Great Lattice Spiral Galaxy: Officially “NGC-1365,” this is a classic, beautiful “barred” galaxy – a spiral with a central star bar connecting two distinctive, curving arms. It is about 56 million light years away.

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

Draco and Sculptor: These are dwarf spherical galaxies near the Milky Way. By studying its movement 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.

This is only an incomplete list. There’s a lot to see out there.

“It’s non-stop, 24/7, just the science is streaming back,” said Heidi Hammel, planetary astronomer and vice president for science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. “And it’s a huge variety of science. I saw Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – but two hours later we’re looking at M33, that spiral galaxy. Two hours later we are now looking at an exoplanet that I actually know by name. It’s very cool to see that.”

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