“If you think about it, this is further than humanity has ever looked before,” Nelson said during a press conference at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the operations centre for the $10 billion observatory, which launched last December and is now orbiting the Sun a million miles (1.5 million kilometres) away from Earth.
Webb is an engineering marvel that can peer deeper into the cosmos than any telescope before it, thanks to its massive primary mirror and infrared-focused instruments that allow it to see through dust and gas.
“It’s going to explore objects in our solar system as well as the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars, giving us clues as to whether potentially their atmospheres are similar to our own,” Nelson explained over the phone while isolated with COVID.
“It may provide answers to some of our questions, such as “Where did we come from?” What else is there? What exactly are we? And, of course, it will answer some questions about which we are not even aware.”
Webb’s infrared capabilities enable it to see further back in time, to the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.
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.
At the moment, the earliest cosmological observations date to within 330 million years of the Big Bang, but astronomers believe Webb’s capabilities will easily break the record.
In other good news, NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy revealed that, thanks to an efficient launch by NASA’s partner Arianespace, the telescope could remain operational for 20 years, more than doubling its original lifespan.
“Those 20 years will not only allow us to go deeper into history and time, but they will also allow us to go deeper into science because we will have the opportunity to learn, grow, and make new observations,” she said.
On July 12, NASA’s top scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen, plans to share Webb’s first spectroscopy of a distant planet, known as an exoplanet.
A planetary spectrum can help characterize its atmosphere and other properties like whether it has water and what its ground is like.
“Right from the start, we’ll look at these worlds out there that keep us awake at night as we gaze into the starry sky and wonder, is there life elsewhere?” Zurbuchen said.
STSI astronomer Nestor Espinoza told AFP that previous exoplanet spectroscopies using existing instruments were very limited in comparison to what Webb could do.
“It’s like being in a very dark room with only a small pinhole to look through,” he said of current technology. “You’ve opened a huge window, you can see all the little details,” Webb says now.