James Webb Space Telescope will ‘transform our understanding of the universe’

Science community overjoyed by unprecedented views of the cosmos

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Astronomers have said that the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope exceeded their expectations and are eager for data that will “soon transform our understanding of the universe”.

Four images and one spectrum from the $10 billion telescope were released this week, including unprecedented views of galaxy clusters, birth and death of stars and atmospheric conditions of a giant gas planet.

The images have helped to reveal space objects that were invisible to telescopes that were not as powerful as this one.

Now, the space observatory is in its full science phase and will look back more than 13.5 billion years in the past and observe atmospheres of planets outside of our solar system.

Dimitra Atri, a planetary scientist at the New York University Abu Dhabi, said he was fascinated by the new images.

“I think we are entering a new era in astrophysics, and it will be hard to keep up with the pace of new discoveries with this incredible instrument,” he told The National.

“This new knowledge will transform our understanding of how the universe evolved in those early years.”

He said his favourite images were ones of the Carina Nebula, which shows the birthplace of stars, as well as the Southern Ring Nebula, where stars are dying, expelling dust and gas in the process.

Atmospheric readings of WASP-96 b, a planet outside of our solar system, or exoplanet, were also released.

“The planet is 1,120 light years away and JWST was able to observe the signature of water vapour and clouds in the atmosphere of the planet.

“The quality of this data was simply unthinkable before the release yesterday.

“As a scientist who studies planetary atmospheres, I am confident that we will soon discover biosignature gases on a large number of exoplanets ― gases which are most likely produced as a result of biological processes.

“We will also get to see images from solar system planets very soon.”

The first image from the telescope was revealed by US President Joe Biden at a White House briefing on July 11.

It was of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, the deepest into the universe we have seen so far, about 13 billion years in the past.

However, Nasa said the telescope will “see” even further, capturing galaxies that formed shortly after the Big Bang, which was 13.8 billion years ago.

Dr Aayush Saxena, a research fellow in extragalactic astronomy at University College London, said the telescope has “revolutionary capabilities” after seeing the image of SMACS 0723.

“It was incredible to see this stunning multi-colour image of the galaxy cluster, complete with beautiful ‘arcs’ that arise due to the bending of light from objects that lie behind massive clusters of galaxies,” he said.

“To be able to achieve such sensitivity and resolution at infrared wavelengths is truly paradigm shifting, opening up a whole range of possibilities.

“These capabilities will be revolutionary to detect some of the first galaxies to have formed in the universe.”

While scientists will benefit from the images and data, amateur astrophotographers, astronomers and space enthusiasts are equally excited about the telescope.

Thabet Al Qaissieh, owner and co-founder of Al Sadeem Astronomy — a space observatory in Abu Dhabi — said the images will inspire more people into astronomy.

“This will no doubt give the science community endless amounts of valuable and new data to analyse and discover,” he said.

“What is really exciting, is how the non-science community, and in some cases people who are not even involved in astronomy, have been equally excited to see a ‘new’ look of the universe.

“Whether professional, amateur astronomers, casual space nerds, and even sci-fi fans, they are engaging in those preliminary images, and that is the most exciting aspect of this new era of space exploration.”

Updated: July 13, 2022, 12:42 PM
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