WASHINGTON - The James Webb Space Telescope project is a herculean effort that was brought to fruition by multiple government agencies from the United States, Canada, and European Union and more than 300 companies and research universities. On 11 July, the first set of full-color images and spectroscopic data was released to the public.
“Today, we present humanity with a groundbreaking new view of the cosmos from the James Webb Space Telescope – a view the world has never seen before,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “These images, including the deepest infrared view of our universe that has ever been taken, show us how Webb will help to uncover the answers to questions we don’t even yet know to ask; questions that will help us better understand our universe and humanity’s place within it.
Webb's instruments are housed inside its Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM), which is considered the satellite's main payload. The satellite also houses instruments in its Optical Telescope Element (OTE) and its Spacecraft Element, which contains its power subsystem and sun shield.
The ISIM contains the near-infrared camera; near-infrared spectrograph, mid-infrared instruments, and fine guidance center/near infrared imager and slitless spectrograph.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency) had representatives to see the first Webb observations, which were enabled by four scientific instruments:
- SMACS 0723: Webb has delivered the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe so far – and in only 12.5 hours. For a person standing on Earth looking up, the field of view for this new image, a color composite of multiple exposures each about two hours long, is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. This deep field uses a lensing galaxy cluster to find some of the most distant galaxies ever detected. This image only scratches the surface of Webb’s capabilities in studying deep fields and tracing galaxies back to the beginning of cosmic time.
- WASP-96b (spectrum): Webb’s detailed observation of this hot, puffy planet outside our solar system reveals the clear signature of water, along with evidence of haze and clouds that previous studies of this planet did not detect. With Webb’s first detection of water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, it will now set out to study hundreds of other systems to understand what other planetary atmospheres are made of.
- Southern Ring Nebula: This planetary nebula, an expanding cloud of gas that surrounds a dying star, is approximately 2,000 light years away. Here, Webb’s powerful infrared eyes bring a second dying star into full view for the first time. From birth to death as a planetary nebula, Webb can explore the expelling shells of dust and gas of aging stars that may one day become a new star or planet.
Launched in December 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) took approximately 30 days to reach its orbit near the second Lagrange point (L2) where it captured these images. During its month-long journey it went through the careful processes of deploying the sunshield and mirrors. Once Webb's main camera cooled-off enough to start supporting telescope alignment activities, Webb's optics team began meticulously moving the 18 primary mirror segments to form a single mirror surface that can capture extremely sharp and detailed images, like those just released.
Stephan’s Quintet: Webb’s view of this compact group of galaxies, located in the constellation Pegasus, pierced through the shroud of dust surrounding the center of one galaxy, to reveal the velocity and composition of the gas near its supermassive black hole. Now, scientists can get a rare look, in unprecedented detail, at how interacting galaxies are triggering star formation in each other and how the gas in these galaxies is being disturbed.
Carina Nebula: Webb’s look at the ‘Cosmic Cliffs’ in the Carina Nebula unveils the earliest, rapid phases of star formation that were previously hidden. Looking at this star-forming region in the southern constellation Carina, as well as others like it, Webb can see newly forming stars and study the gas and dust that made them.
“Absolutely thrilling!” said John Mather, Webb senior project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The equipment is working perfectly, and nature is full of surprising beauty. Congratulations and thanks to our worldwide teams that made it possible.”
The release of Webb’s first images and spectra kicks off the beginning of Webb’s science operations, where astronomers around the world will have their chance to observe anything from objects within our solar system to the early universe using Webb’s four instruments.
A full list of the 300+ contributing companies and institutions can be seen at this link.