• Sun. Dec 3rd, 2023

A year of cosmic wonder with the James Webb Space Telescope

A year of cosmic wonder with the James Webb Space Telescope

Written by Katrina Miller

New York: Now, perhaps, we should familiarize ourselves with the unreal images of the universe produced by the James Webb Space Telescope. But a year after NASA released the Cosmic Observatory’s first image, the space agency has dropped another breathtaking snapshot of our universe. Wednesday’s image was the Rho Ophiuchi, the closest nursery to baby stars in our cosmic backyard. Located just 390 light-years from Earth, this cloud complex is full of stellar goodness. About 50 stars with masses comparable to our Sun are scattered white: some fully formed and shining, others still hidden behind dark, dense regions of interstellar dust. (Zoom in and you’ll even spot a faint galaxy or two.)

At the center of the image is a mature star called S1, whose starlight illuminates the yellow nebula around it. At top right are streaming red jets of molecular hydrogen, ejected material on either side of the forming protostars. The dark shadows near these regions are accretion disks of rotating gas and dust—some of which may be in the process of forming planetary systems.

The awe the image inspires is comparable to how researchers feel about the Web’s first year of science. “As an astronomer who lives and breathes this mission, I have to work hard to keep up — there are so many discoveries,” said Jane Rigby, the telescope’s senior project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She finds it fitting that the traditional gift for one-year anniversaries is paper, because that’s exactly what telescope-wielding researchers have been saying for the past year: scientific papers. The observatory opened on Christmas Day in 2021, and for the next six months scientists prepared the telescope for operation: opening its sun shield and honeycomb-like gold mirrors, then conducting tests on the four instruments used to observe the universe. When it was ready, Webb began his journey to peer into the depths of the universe.

Doordarshini’s agenda has been busy ever since. It has examined asteroids, quasars, exoplanets and other cosmic phenomena. Dr. For Rigby, one of the most gratifying achievements of this past year was the way the mission fulfilled its promise to reveal the earliest moments of cosmic time.

“That was the elevator pitch: We’re going to show you baby pictures of the universe,” she said.

Of course it has. Before JWST, astronomers knew only a small number of candidate galaxies that existed in the first billion years after the Big Bang. In the past year, hundreds of them — bigger and brighter than expected, filled with stars orbiting supermassive black holes — have been confirmed.

“The data from the telescope is better than we promised,” Dr. Rigby said. “It’s overpowered in almost every way.”

The telescope’s schedule for next year is already set with nearly 5,000 hours of prime observing time for a suite of projects on galaxy formation, stellar chemistry, the nature of black holes, the large-scale structure of our universe and more. Many of these projects — even more ambitious than last year, now that scientists know what the telescope can do — are dedicated to pursuing Webb’s own discoveries.

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