Washington (AFP) – Until now, the Universe has remained largely a mystery. The commissioning of the James Webb telescope promises to reveal new details.
NASA unveiled the first five Webb targets on Friday, saying it has captured unprecedented images of remote galaxies, bright nebulae and a distant gas giant planet.
The first observed target is the Carina nebula, located about 7,600 light-years away. The Hubble Space Telescope had already photographed it and revealed gigantic columns of dust and gas, one of them the famous Mystic Mountain.
James Webb’s images, whose main mirror used to capture light is much larger, promise to offer a new perspective on Carina.
The Southern Ring Nebula is another target. It is a huge cloud of gas that surrounds a dying star and is located about 2,000 light years from Earth (a light year is equal to more than 9,400 million kilometers).
The third target that has been observed is Stephan’s Quintet, the first compact group of galaxies discovered in 1787 that is located in the constellation of Pegasus.
Probably the most tempting thing Webb can do, though, is to use a cluster of galaxies, known as SMACS 0723, as a kind of cosmic magnifying glass to see other faint, distant galaxies behind it.
This is known as “gravitational lensing” and uses the mass of foreground galaxies to deflect light from objects behind them, like glasses.
Beyond the images, the first spectroscopy made by Webb, a mechanism used to determine the chemical composition of a distant object, will also be published on Tuesday.
This technique has been applied to WASP-96 b, a giant planet made mostly of gas. It was discovered in 2014 and is located outside our solar system, 1,150 light years away. Its mass is about half that of Jupiter and it revolves around its star in just 3.4 days.
The space telescope has just become fully operational, after the Ariane 5 rocket launched it into space last Christmas. The Webb reached its observation post after a long journey, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.
Until now, NASA has kept the first images under lock and key. “I’m looking forward to not having to keep these secrets anymore, it will be a great relief,” Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer supervising the Webb, told AFP last week.
NASA Director Bill Nelson promised last week “the deepest picture ever taken of our universe.”
Webb’s infrared capabilities allow him to see back in time to the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.
The expanding quality of the Universe causes the light from the first stars to change the ultraviolet wavelengths in the visible spectrum in which it was emitted to longer ones in the infrared zone. The Webb is equipped to detect them with unprecedented resolution.
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