The first scientific results have come out in recent weeks, and what the telescope has seen in the deepest space is a little baffling. Some of these distant galaxies are amazingly massive. The general assumption was that the early galaxies, which formed shortly after the first stars flared up, were relatively small and deformed. Instead, some of them are big, bright, and well-structured.
The Webb telescope is impressive. But even more so the universe.
“The models just don’t predict it,” Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said of the massive early galaxies. “How are you doing this in the universe at such an early time? How do you form so many stars so quickly?”
This is not a cosmological crisis. There is a lot of fast science going on “in real time,” as astrophysicist Ceyhan Kartaltepe of the Rochester Institute of Technology put it. Data from the new telescope has been pouring in, and she is among the legions of astronomers who publish new papers, quickly posting them online before peer review.
Webb sees things no one has ever seen, in such sharp detail and at such a great distance. Research teams around the planet are studying published data and looking to discover the most distant galaxies or make other remarkable discoveries. Science often moves at a majestic pace, advancing knowledge incrementally, but Webb dumps truckloads of enticing data on scientists at the same time. Preliminary estimates of distances will be specified upon closer examination.
Kartaltepe said she certainly isn’t bothered by any contradiction between astrophysical theory and what Webb sees: “Maybe we’ll be scratching our heads today, but a day later, ‘Oh, it all makes sense now.’
NASA releases first images from James Webb Space Telescope
What surprised astronomer Dan Kou of the Space Telescope Science Institute, is a number of beautifully shaped disc-shaped galaxies.
“We thought that the early universe was a chaotic place where you have all these clusters of star formation, and everything around is chaotic,” Coe said.
This assumption about the early universe was due in part to observations by the Hubble Space Telescope, which revealed lumpy, irregularly shaped galaxies. But Hubble observes in a relatively narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum, including “visible” light. Webb observes in infrared, gathering light beyond Hubble’s reach. With Hubble, Coe said: “We have missed out on cooler stars and older stars. In fact, we only saw hot young ones.”
The simplest explanation for these amazingly massive galaxies is that at least some of them miscalculated, perhaps due to the play of light.
Distant galaxies are very red. In astronomical jargon, they are “redshifted”. The wavelengths of light from these objects have been stretched out by the expansion of the universe. The ones that look the reddest – those with the largest redshift – are considered the farthest.
But the dust can be thrown off the calculations. Dust can absorb blue light and turn an object red. Perhaps some of these very distant, high redshift galaxies are just very dusty and actually not as distant (and not as “young”) as they seem. This would bring the observations in line with what the astronomers expected.
Or there may be some other explanation. What is certain is that now the $10 billion telescope — a collaboration between NASA and the Canadian and European space agencies — is providing new observations not only of these distant galaxies, but also of objects closer to us, such as Jupiter, a giant asteroid, and recently open comet.
Webb’s latest discovery was announced Thursday: carbon dioxide has been found in the atmosphere of a distant giant planet called WASP-39 b. This is “the first definitive detection of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere,” according to Knicole Colon, a scientist at NASA’s Webb Project. Although WASP-39 b is considered too hot for life, the successful detection of carbon dioxide demonstrates Webb’s visual acuity and offers hope for future exploration of distant planets that may harbor life.
The telescope is operated by engineers from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The Mission Control Center is located on the second floor of the institute, which is on the outskirts of the Johns Hopkins University campus.
On a recent morning, there were only three people working in the flight control room: operations controller Irma Araceli Quispe-Neira, ground systems engineer Evan Adams, and controller Kayla Yates. They sat at workstations with large monitors loaded with data from telescope.
Take a space tour of images taken by the NASA Webb telescope.
“Usually we don’t command the action live,” Yates said. In other words, no one controls the telescope with a joystick or anything like that. It functions largely autonomously, running an observation schedule that is downloaded about once a week. The team leaves the control room for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. From there, the team travels to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and then to the deep space network of radio antennas near Barstow, California, Madrid and Canberra, Australia. Depending on the rotation of the Earth, one of these antennas can transmit a command to the telescope.
Long gone from the mission operations center in Baltimore were the crowds that were on hand on the morning of the telescope’s launch last Christmas.
“It’s a testament to how well it works that we can go from a few hundred people to three of us,” Adams said.
The observing schedule is largely driven by the desire to be efficient, and this often means observing objects that appear close to each other in the sky, even if they are billions of light-years apart.
The visitor will be disappointed to learn that the flight control team does not see what the telescope sees. There is no big screen showing, for example, a comet, or a galaxy, or the Dawn of Time. But the flight control team can read data that describes the orientation of the telescope – for example, “32 degrees of right ascension, 12 degrees of declination.” And then look at the sky map to see where the telescope is pointing.
“It’s between Andromeda and another constellation,” Adams said.
‘Incredible’ images of Jupiter taken by NASA’s James Webb Telescope
Here is an example of some of Webb’s observations, which should yield new images as well as scientific reports in the coming months:
Galaxy Cartwheel: Strikingly beautiful and rare “ring” galaxy at a distance of about 500 million light years. Its unusual structure is due to a collision with another galaxy. It was one of the first images processed by the Webb team to showcase the telescope’s capabilities.
M16 Eagle Nebula: It is a “planetary nebula” in our own galaxy known to be home to a structure dubbed the “Pillars of Creation” that was photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. It became one of Hubble’s most famous images, showing three towering columns of dust lit by hot young stars outside the image frame, and all of which was geared by NASA to create what looks like Earth’s landscape to the human eye. Presumably, Webb will create a similar image, but with new resolution and detail thanks to the ability to collect light in the infrared wavelengths that Hubble can’t.
Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon: This is the largest moon in the solar system, it is even larger than the planet Mercury. Scientists believe that it has an underground ocean with more water than all the oceans on Earth. Webb Project scientist Klaus Pontopiddan said the telescope will look for plumes — geysers similar to those seen on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Comet C/2017 K2: Discovered in 2017, this is an unusually large comet with a 500,000-mile tail heading towards the Sun.
Large barred spiral galaxy: Officially, NGC-1365 is a classic gorgeous barred galaxy, a spiral with a central bar of stars that connects two prominent, curved arms. It is located at a distance of about 56 million light years.
Planetary system Trappist-1: Seven planets orbit this star, and several are in the “habitable zone”, which means they are at a distance from the star where water can be liquid on the surface. Astronomers want to know if these planets have an atmosphere.
Draco and the Sculptor: These are dwarf spheroidal galaxies close to the Milky Way. By studying their motion over an extended period of time, astronomers hope to learn more about the presence of dark matter, which is invisible but has a gravitational signature.
This is only an incomplete list. There is something to see.
“It’s non-stop, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, just the science is coming back,” said Heidi Hummel, planetary scientist and vice president of science at the Association of Astronomy Research Universities. “And that’s a huge variety of science. I saw Jupiter’s big red spot, but two hours later we’re looking at M33, this spiral galaxy. Two hours later, we’re looking for an exoplanet whose name I actually know. It’s very cool to watch.”