NASA has released the first spectacular photos from the universe’s kindergarten. James Webb is also said to provide a glimpse into life in distant planets.
The deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date: With great effort, NASA unveiled the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, which cost ten billion euros. US President Joe Biden attended the ceremony in person. But what do the recordings actually show? And is the excitement justified?
What can you actually see in the first published image of the telescope?
The very first image of the James Webb telescope shows thousands of galaxies in a tiny part of the universe. The image shows two stars emanating six rays of light, one of which shines very brightly. According to Oliver Krause, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, these objects are stars in the Milky Way. It’s just a “stone’s throw” from Earth, but the galaxy clusters in the photo are much more interesting to researchers. Milky objects show extremely distant galaxies. They offer the most detailed view of the early universe so far.
What period does the light visible in the photograph come from?
“The light you see in one of these little spots has been traveling for 13 billion years,” NASA chief Bill Nelson told US President Joe Biden when he saw the first image. German astronomers are even more precise: “We know the Big Bang happened 13.8 billion years ago,” says Oliver Krause. Previous recordings – for example, the Hubble Space Telescope – showed objects about 13.5 billion years ago. Now scientists are confident that James Webb will provide images that were taken even further in time. “When transferred to humans, we are talking about the childhood phase of the universe,” explains Krause.
What breakthrough can new technology achieve?
Astronomers around the world have high hopes for an infrared telescope when it comes to studying distant planets. Especially those that could have living conditions similar to those on Earth. The first so-called exoplanet was not discovered until 1995. What makes exoplanets different now occupies a whole field of research. “Thanks to James Webb, we can now study the atmospheres of these distant planets,” says Krause. “This was not possible with the previous technology.”
Has the telescope already provided information about the planets?
Yes. Among other things, the telescope found clear traces of water on the gaseous planet Wasp-96 b, located outside our solar system. There are signs of clouds and fog in the atmosphere, NASA said. This observation is the most accurate of its kind to date, and demonstrates the telescope’s unprecedented ability to study atmospheres hundreds of light years away.
What are the advantages of the telescope compared to its Hubble predecessor?
According to Ulrich Walter, professor of space technology at the Technical University of Munich, James Webb provides images with much better sharpness as well as a wider range of visibility. But there is also a downside compared to Hubble. “Unfortunately, the telescope, although about five times more expensive than the Hubble, will only be able to work for about ten years.” Hubble has been active since 1992 to the present day. However, James Webb is far from Earth. Thanks to this, he will be able to observe calmer and more efficiently than Hubble.
What is Germany’s contribution to the celestial observatory?
Some components also contain German technology, for example, Airbus, the Institute of Applied Optics and Precision Engineering Fraunhofer in Jena and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg. Thanks to their knowledge, the Heidelberg researchers developed the moving parts of the apparatus. They were also involved in the launch of the telescope.
What did the Europeans do?
James Webb was launched on December 25 from the European spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, aboard the Ariane launcher. The telescope is “a once in a lifetime opportunity” and “will change our understanding of the universe,” says Josef Aschbacher, head of the European space agency ESA involved in the project. “Besides science, it’s also a symbol of international collaboration.” Each image is “a new discovery and each gives humanity a glimpse of a universe that it has never had before,” said NASA CEO Bill Nelson.