The first scientific results have emerged in recent weeks, and what the telescope sees at its deepest point is a little puzzling. Some of these distant galaxies are surprisingly massive. A common assumption is that early galaxies that formed shortly after the first stars ignited would be relatively small and misshapen. Instead, some of them are big, bright and well-structured.
Webb telescope is amazing. But the universe is even more so.
“These models don’t predict this,” said astronomer Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, of the massive early galaxies. “How did you do this in the universe so early? How did you form so many stars so quickly?”
This is not a cosmic crisis. What’s happening, as Rochester Institute of Technology astrophysicist Jeyhan Kartaltepe puts it, is a lot of fast science going on “in real time.” There is a steady stream of data from new telescopes, and she is one of many astronomers who are making up new papers, quickly posting them online ahead of peer review.
Webb was seeing things no one had ever seen before in such clear detail and at such great distances. Research teams around the world are looking at publicly released data and racing to discover the most distant galaxies or make other extraordinary discoveries. Science often advances at a solemn pace, progressively advancing knowledge, but Weber is dumping a trove of tantalizing data on scientists at a time. Preliminary estimates of distances will be improved upon closer inspection.
Kartaltepe says she’s certainly not concerned about any tension between astrophysical theories and what Webb sees: “We might one day be scratching our heads, but a day later, ‘Oh, this all makes sense now.'”
NASA releases first image of James Webb Space Telescope
what a surprise Dan Coe, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, is a number of beautifully shaped disk galaxies.
“We think of the early universe as a chaotic place with all these star-forming clumps, and everything was chaotic,” Coe said.
This assumption about the early universe is due in part to observations by the Hubble Space Telescope, which revealed lumpy, irregularly shaped early galaxies. But Hubble makes observations in a relatively narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum, including “visible” light. Webb looked in the infrared, collecting light beyond the Hubble range. Of Hubble, Coe said: “We’re missing all the cooler stars and the older stars. We’re really only seeing the hot young.”
The simplest explanation for those surprisingly large galaxies is that, for at least some of them, there is a miscalculation — probably due to the tricks of light.
Distant galaxies are very red. In astronomical terms, they are “redshifted”. The wavelengths of light emitted by these celestial bodies have been stretched by the expansion of the universe. Those that look the reddest—those with the highest redshifts—are considered the furthest away.
But dust can affect calculations. Dust can absorb blue light and turn objects red. It’s possible that some of these very distant, highly redshifted galaxies are just dusty and aren’t actually as distant (and “young”) as they appear. This would bring the observations back in line with astronomers’ expectations.
Or some other explanation might surface. To be sure, for now, the $10 billion telescope — built by NASA and space agencies in Canada and Europe — is not just for those distant galaxies, but for objects that are closer to home like Jupiter New observations were made. Huge asteroids and newly discovered comets.
Webb’s latest discovery, announced Thursday: carbon dioxide detected in the atmosphere of a distant giant planet called WASP-39 b. According to NASA Webb project scientist Knicole Colon, this is “the first unequivocal detection of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet.” Although WASP-39 b is considered too hot to be habitable, the successful detection of carbon dioxide demonstrates Webb’s keen insight and promises to examine distant planets that could harbor life in the future.
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 college, on the edge of the Johns Hopkins campus.
On a recent morning, there were only three people working in the flight control room: operations controller Irma Aracely Quispe-Neira, ground systems engineer Evan Adams and command controller Kayla Yates.They sit on a row of workstations with large monitors full of data telescope.
Take a cosmic journey in images captured by NASA’s Webb Telescope
“We don’t usually direct operations on the spot,” Yates said. In other words, no one controls the telescope with a joystick or anything like that. It runs largely autonomously, completing a schedule of observations that are uploaded about once a week. Commands are sent from the flight control room to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. From there, the instructions traveled to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and then to the Deep Space Network – a radio antenna near Barstow, California, Madrid and Canberra, Australia. Depending on the Earth’s rotation, one of the antennas could transmit commands to the telescope.
Long gone from the mission operations center in Baltimore were the crowds present on the morning of the telescope’s launch last Christmas.
“It’s a testament to how well we can go from a few hundred people to just three of us,” Adams said.
Observation schedules depend heavily on the desire to be efficient, which often means observing things in the sky that appear close to each other, even if they are billions of light-years away.
Visitors will be disappointed to realize that the flight control team did not see what the telescope saw. For example, there are no big screens showing comets, galaxies, 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.” Then look at the star map to see where the telescope is pointing.
“It’s between Andromeda and other constellations,” Adams said.
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Here are some samples of Webb’s observations that should yield new images and scientific reports in the coming months:
Wheel Galaxy: A stunningly beautiful and rare “ring” galaxy about 500 million light-years away. Its unusual structure is due to a collision with another galaxy. This is one of the first images Webb’s team has processed to demonstrate the capabilities of the telescope.
M16, the Eagle Nebula: This is a “planetary nebula” in our galaxy and is home to a structure known as the “Pillars of Creation” photographed by the famous Hubble Space Telescope. It became one of the most famous Hubble images, showing three towering dust pillars illuminated by hot young stars outside the frame of the image, all oriented by NASA to produce what the human eye looks like a terrestrial landscape s things. With the ability to collect light in infrared wavelengths beyond the reach of Hubble, Webb may produce similarly framed images, but with new resolution and detail.
Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede: It is the largest moon in the solar system, even bigger than Mercury. Scientists believe it has more subsurface oceans than all the oceans on Earth. Webb project scientist Klaus Pontopidan said the telescope will look for plumes — similar to the geysers found on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Comet C/2017 K2: This is an unusually large comet discovered in 2017 with a tail 500,000 miles long, facing the sun.
Great Barred Spiral Galaxy: Officially named “NGC-1365,” it’s a classic, gorgeous “bar” galaxy—a spiral galaxy with a central star bar that connects two prominent curved arms. It’s about 56 million light-years away.
Trappist-1 Planetary System: Seven planets orbit the star, several of which are in the “habitable zone,” which means they are at a distance from the star where water may be liquid on the surface. Astronomers want to know if these planets have atmospheres.
Draco and the Sculptor: These are dwarf spherical galaxies close to the Milky Way. By studying their motions over long periods of time, astronomers hope to learn more about the existence of dark matter — dark matter that is invisible but has gravitational signatures.
This is only a partial list. There’s a lot to see there.
“It’s uninterrupted, 24-7, just a science pour-back,” said Heidi Hamel, a planetary astronomer and vice president of science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. “It’s a huge scientific diversity. I saw Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – but two hours later, now we’re seeing M33, this spiral galaxy. Two hours later, now we’re looking for one I know the name of Exoplanets. It’s pretty cool to watch.”