Astronomers poring over images from the new space telescope: NPR


When the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope appeared in New York’s Times Square and everywhere else, scientists got to work diving deep into the data.

Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images


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Astronomers poring over images from the new space telescope: NPR

When the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope appeared in New York’s Times Square and everywhere else, scientists got to work diving deep into the data.

Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images

Surprisingly distant galaxies, clues to the atmospheres of alien planets and unexpected strangeness around Jupiter are just some of the scientific treasures discovered by the James Webb Space Telescope.

The days since the telescope’s first images were publicly unveiled have been action-packed for astronomers, who have been engulfed in a whirlwind of possible discoveries as they ponder the first sightings of the $10 billion telescope.

“It’s like birthday and Christmas and birthday and graduation and Thanksgiving and Hanukkah rolled into one for us, and happening every day,” said Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago.

“It’s working better than I think almost everyone expected. It’s truly a miracle,” says Rachel Somerville, an astronomer at the Flatiron Institute. “It’s unlike anything I’ve been through.”

The few stunning images shown at press conferences on July 11 and 12 represent only a fraction of what the telescope has seen since its December launch and deployment in space.

“The initial unveiling was, of course, really exciting. But it wasn’t until two days later that the real work started. That’s when the first data became available,” says Laura Kreidberg, astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. in Germany.

“Scientists want the real data,” agrees Misty Bentz, an astronomer at Georgia State University. “We really want to enter and extract the scientific data from which these lovely images were made.”

Astronomers poring over images from the new space telescope: NPR

A crowd at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland watched some of the first images released on July 12.

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Astronomers poring over images from the new space telescope: NPR

A crowd at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland watched some of the first images released on July 12.

NASA/Getty Images

Researchers rushed to download everything collected by this instrument so they could browse it. Jennifer Lotz, director of the international Gemini Observatory, is part of a team studying a particular field of thousands of galaxies that has been studied many times in the past.

“We know these galaxies pretty well, but seeing these images with James Webb is like putting on glasses,” says Lotz. “Things that we couldn’t see before are just crystal clear. It was overwhelming. It was really overwhelming.”

It’s an emotional and shared experience, as astronomers happily tell their pals about each revelation. Caltech’s Jessica Spake found herself crying on the phone when a friend told her about a new analysis of the atmosphere of an exoplanet, which is a planet that orbits a distant star.

“It’s the most beautiful look at an exoplanet atmosphere I’ve ever seen,” says Spake. “I was in tears.”

Researchers usually keep their findings a secret until they’re officially published, but that shouldn’t take long – a few scientific reports have started popping up online.

One of the primary goals of the James Webb Space Telescope was to find extremely distant galaxies, galaxies so distant that light from them had to travel almost the entire history of the universe to reach the telescope. And astronomers already think they have seen it.

“We hope that within a few weeks we will be able to tell the world what we found,” says Steven Finkelstein, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin. “It sounds really exciting.”

Closer to home, some views of Jupiter captured by the telescope stunned scientists, as they showed rings around the planet as well as its moons.

The rings have been studied before, but “to see them all together in one image was pretty amazing. It was really amazing,” says Imke de Pater, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley.

She and others were puzzled by a strange line that appeared around the edge of one side of the planet, suggesting a layer of mist. “So we’re looking at that to find out what it really is,” she says. “Is it mist? Or is it another gas emission? It’s intriguing.

And, of course, as this scientific rush continues, the telescope continues to make more observations.

On July 20 and 21, for example, he gazes at a mysterious planet beyond our solar system called GJ 1214b, says Bean. “We’re going to be looking at the planet for almost two full days of telescope time.”

He’s been studying this planet for over a decade and says our solar system has nothing like it. It is larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, with its true nature obscured by clouds or haze that other telescopes have been unable to penetrate.

If all goes according to plan, this weekend Bean and his colleagues will know what the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) managed to see while looking at this world.

Until then, they just have to wait. “I think at some point I’ll probably look up at the sky and be like, ‘JWST is doing its thing right now, and it’s looking at my favorite planet,'” Bean says. “It’s a special moment.”




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