NASA releases ridiculously sharp images from the Webb Space Telescope

Stars and a cloud-like galaxy photographed by the Webb Space Telescope.

NASA held a press conference Monday morning to discuss the precise alignment of the Webb Space Telescope and the spacecraft’s upcoming science operations. The space agency also released images from the telescope that highlight Webb’s progress.

“I am delighted to report that the telescope alignment has been completed with even better performance than we anticipated,” said Michael McElwain, Webb Observatory Project Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, at a NASA press conference. “This is an extraordinary milestone for humanity.”

Webb is at an observation point called L2 nearly a million miles from Earth, where he will travel further back in time than the Hubble Space Telescope. (Hubble will continue to operate alongside Webb once the latter is operational).

The 10 Billion Dollar Telescope primary scientific objectives are to study how stars are born and give rise to planetary systems, to study the evolution of galaxies, exoplanets and objects in our solar system, and to observe the first light of the universe, in the hope that we can understand how the first stars and galaxies emerged.

Preparing and testing the telescope’s science instruments (a process called commissioning) will take about two months. Only after commissioning is complete can Webb begin taking the science images that will define his tenure in space.

But some images are already being collected, to make sure the telescope is working properly. Webb’s coldest instrument – the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) – recently took a test image of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way that was previously imaged by the Infrared Array Camera. of the now retired Spitzer Space Telescope.

Webb’s image of the same region makes Spitzer look like a finger painting, showing interstellar gas clearly distributed across the star field. The stars – spots, according to Spitzer – are seven-pointed beacons in the MIRI test.

“It’s a really great scientific example of what Webb will do for us in the years to come,” Christopher Evans, Webb project scientist at the European Space Agency, said at the press conference. Evans said Spitzer was useful for surveys of objects like the Large Magellanic Cloud, but (as you can see) his images were limited by their resolution. Webb is much less limited. “It’s just going to give us an unobstructed view of processes in a different galaxy for the first time, cutting through the dust,” Evans said.

The Large Magellanic Cloud seen by the Spitzer and Webb space telescopes.

Webb’s near-infrared spectrograph (NIRSPEC) is also a great upgrade from previous space telescope technology. Evans said that old space observatories could only see spectra one target at a time; NIRSPEC will be able to observe 100 targets simultaneously. It’s a boon to the thousands of scientists who all hope to use Webb’s data in their research.

Webb’s next steps will focus on taking images of his science targets, known as early release observations. These will not only be the first images of the Webb science targets, but they will be the first color-processed images. (Webb sees the cosmos in infrared and near-infrared wavelengths, but images will translate to visible light.)

Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said during the briefing that the main differences between the most recent images and those to come are that the first ones were taken to test the telescope’s ability to see clearly, while the latter will test the telescope’s ability to image scientific targets. Pontoppidan wouldn’t specify what Webb’s team will capture in the publication’s early observations – the targets are a “surprise”, he said.

Based on these early results, it looks like Webb will be some kind of intergalactic palantir, dropping scientists in various parts of deep space. which were previously inaccessible. It’s the next best thing to actually being there for the childhood of the universe.

The telescope was designed operate for a minimum of five years, but its ultra-precise launch in December means the telescope can have enough fuel to stay in position for more than 20 years. Buckle up.

More: The Webb Space Telescope may have a good look at the next ‘Oumuamua

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