The Large Magellanic Cloud is sharper than ever in the infrared eyes of the James Webb Space Telescope.
As the $10 billion observatory enters the ‘final stretch’ of its commissioning work, officials say Webb’s latest image showed the telescope’s literally stellar performance using its coldest instrument , the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI).
The new MIRI image showed the chemistry of interstellar gas in great detail, including emissions of carbon and hydrogen molecules called “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” believed to be building blocks of life. This imaging capability is crucial to helping Webb understand how stars and protoplanetary systems form, officials said during a live press conference Monday (May 9).
“It’s a really great scientific example of what Webb will do for us in the years to come,” said Chris Evans, telescope project scientist at the mission partner European Space Agency, at the event. .
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“We’ve done a lot of studies of star and planet formation in our own galaxy, but here we’re looking at it in the Magellanic Clouds, such small outer galaxies, where they’re chemically less evolved than our own. own Milky Way,” Evans added. “So this gives us a chance to look at the processes of star and planet formation…in an environment very different from our own galaxy.”
The image, taken at 7.7 microns, shows a sharp view of the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud which is a neighboring dwarf galaxy to the Milky Way. Along with the Webb image, engineers reposted an image from the now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope at 8.0 microns. Spitzer was a pioneer in his day in generating high-resolution images of the near- and mid-infrared universe, but Webb is far more powerful.
Spitzer did “incredible things,” Evans said, but he noted the observatory was limited by its spatial resolution because it was optimized for wide-field surveys that capture celestial objects in context.
By comparison, Webb’s detailed, up-close perspective will provide “an astonishing view of processes in a different galaxy for the first time, cutting through the dust,” Evans said. “We use mid-infrared to look through material that would otherwise be obscured at visible wavelengths.”
Additionally, Webb has a much larger primary mirror, improved detectors, and superior vantage point compared to Spitzer; the now-retired telescope operated in a trailing orbit of Earth, as opposed to Webb’s orbit at Lagrange point 2 Earth-sun, about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers). These factors will allow the new telescope to access infrared information with greater clarity than its predecessor.
Webb went through the commissioning stages with few problems. Engineers are now in the final stages of tuning the instruments, now that all of the mirrors have cooled to the deep-space temperatures required for infrared observations.
The LMC has been identified as an ideal launch target given that the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories have already studied it. Knowing the locations of stars in the galaxy is a key advantage for scientists, Michael McElwain, Webb Observatory Project Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said at the same press conference.
“We can use them [the stars] for astrometric calibrations,” he explained, adding that this is important for calibrating scientific instruments. “Of course, these images are also very spectacular.”
In the near future, mission personnel will also test Webb’s ability to track objects in the solar system, such as planets, satellites, rings, asteroids and comets. Scientists will focus on making sure Webb can do this properly, given that the observatory is particularly sensitive to starlight.
“We will also measure changes in the alignment of the telescope as we point the telescope at different locations,” Evans said. To test this, Webb will soon be swinging between slightly warmer and cooler attitudes, so everyone can learn how quickly his mirrors heat up and cool down as the observatory moves through space.
While officials still haven’t released information on which go-live target Webb will focus on first when its testing work is complete, they stressed that the observatory remains on schedule to begin release. science anticipated this summer.
“When this phase is complete, we will be ready to unleash scientific instruments on the universe,” Evans said.