NASA’s James Webb Telescope – powered by Rocket Lab – takes ‘deepest ever’ image of cosmos


Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo/NASA

Our view of the universe just got wider: the first image from NASA’s new space telescope unveiled is packed with galaxies and offers the deepest look into the cosmos ever captured.

The first image from the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the farthest humanity has ever seen in time and distance, closer to the dawn of time and the far reaches of the universe. This image will be followed by the release of four more shots of galactic beauty from the telescope’s initial exterior gazes.

The revolutionary company has a Kiwi connection. The JWST is powered by Rocket Lab technology. SolAero Technologies, a New Mexico-based space solar energy company that Rocket Lab acquired earlier this year for US$80 million ($116 million), supplied the high-efficiency triple-junction solar cells that convert sunlight into energy on the JWST.

The “deep field” image released at a White House event is filled with many stars, with massive galaxies in the foreground and faint, extremely distant galaxies glancing here and there. Part of the image is light shortly after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.

“We are going to give humanity a new vision of the cosmos,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters last month during a briefing. “And it’s a sight we’ve never seen before.”

An image captured by the fine guiding sensor of the James Webb Telescope.  Photo/NASA
An image captured by the fine guiding sensor of the James Webb Telescope. Photo/NASA

Available images include a view of a gas giant planet outside our solar system, two images of a nebula where stars are born and die in spectacular beauty, and an update to a classic image of five closely packed galaxies who dance around each other.

The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope took off last December from French Guiana in South America. It reached its vantage point 1.6 million km from Earth in January. Then the long process began of aligning the mirrors, cooling the infrared detectors enough to operate, and calibrating the scientific instruments, all protected by a tennis-court-sized sunshade that keeps the telescope cool.

The plan is to use the telescope to look back so far that scientists will get a glimpse of the early days of the universe around 13.7 billion years ago and zoom in on closer cosmic objects, even our own. solar system, with sharper focus.

Webb is considered the successor to the highly successful but aging Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble dates back 13.4 billion years. He found the light wave signature of an extremely bright galaxy in 2016. Astronomers measure how far they look in light years, with a light year being 9.3 trillion kilometers.

The James Webb Space Telescope main mirror assembly during testing at a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, 2020. Photo/Nasa
The James Webb Space Telescope main mirror assembly during testing at a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, 2020. Photo/Nasa

“Webb can look back in time to just after the Big Bang by looking for galaxies that are so far away that light has taken many billions of years to get from those galaxies to our telescopes,” said Jonathan Gardner, assistant scientist at the Webb project. during the press conference.

How far back is this first image? Over the next few days, astronomers will perform complex calculations to determine the age of these galaxies, project scientist Klaus Pontoppidan said last month.

The deepest view of the cosmos “isn’t a record that will last very long,” Pontoppidan said, because scientists would have to use the telescope to get even deeper.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s chief science officer, said seeing the images made him emotional, as did his colleagues: “It’s really hard not to look at the universe in a new light and to not just having a deeply personal moment.”

At 6.4 meters, Webb’s gold-plated flower-shaped mirror is the largest and most sensitive ever sent into space. It is made up of 18 segments, one of which was hit by a larger-than-expected micrometeoroid in May. Four previous micrometeoroid strikes on the mirror were smaller. Despite the impacts, the telescope continued to exceed mission requirements, with virtually no data loss, according to Nasa.

NASA collaborates on Webb with the European and Canadian space agencies.

“I’m now really excited because this dramatic progress bodes well for reaching the ultimate prize for many astronomers like me: identifying ‘Cosmic Dawn’ – the moment when the universe was first bathed in starlight.” , Richard Ellis, professor of astrophysics at University College London, said by email.

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