The US, European, and Canadian space agencies are preparing for a big reveal of early observations by the $10 billion observatory, the successor to Hubble that is expected to reveal new insights into the universe’s origins on July 12.
“I’m looking forward to no longer having to keep these secrets, that will be a huge relief,” Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI), which oversees Webb, told AFP last week.
An international committee decided that the Carina Nebula, an enormous cloud of dust and gas 7,600 light years away, and the Southern Ring Nebula, which surrounds a dying star 2,000 light years away, would be included in the first wave of full-color scientific images.
The Carina Nebula is famous for its towering pillars, including “Mystic Mountain,” a three-light-year-tall cosmic pinnacle captured in a famous Hubble image.
Webb has also performed spectroscopy—a light analysis that reveals detailed information—on WASP-96 b, a distant gas giant discovered in 2014.
WASP-96 b, located nearly 1,150 light-years away, has half the mass of Jupiter and orbits its star in 3.4 days.
Stephan’s Quintet, a compact galaxy 290 million light years away, comes next. According to NASA, four of the quintet’s five galaxies are “locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.”
Finally, and perhaps most enticingly, Webb has assembled an image in which foreground galaxy clusters called SMACS 0723 serve as a kind of cosmic magnifying glass for the extremely distant and faint galaxies behind it.
This is known as “gravitational lensing,” and it works by using the mass of foreground galaxies to bend the light of objects behind them, similar to how glasses work.
STSI astronomer Dan Coe told AFP on Friday that the telescope had broken scientific ground even in its first images.
“I looked at the images when I first saw them… of this deep field of this galaxy cluster lensing, and I suddenly learned three things about the universe that I didn’t know before,” he said.
“It completely blew my mind.”
Webb’s infrared capabilities enable it to see further back in time to the Big Bang, which occurred 13.8 billion years ago, than any previous instrument.
Because the Universe is expanding, light from the first stars shifts from ultraviolet and visible wavelengths to longer infrared wavelengths, which Webb can detect at unprecedented resolution.