Scientists will release additional images and data from the James Webb Space Telescope today, including ultra-sharp infrared views of a star-forming nebula, a colourful cloud of gas around a dying star, a group of distant galaxies, and the first measurement of the composition of a planet around another star.
The imagery set for release Tuesday follows a sneak preview of Webb’s initial treasure trove unveiled by President Biden Monday at the White House.
Webb launched Christmas Day aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana.
After a month-long journey into deep space, Webb arrived in January at its operating orbit, located near a gravitationally stable balance point nearly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Since launch, the $10 billion observatory opened its mirror and sunshield, allowing its instrument detectors to cool down to cryogenic temperatures, not far above absolute zero.
Over the last few months, ground teams have calibrated Webb’s four science instruments and aligned the telescope’s mirror segments. The last of the telescope’s 17 observing modes was declared ready for scientific operations Monday.
“We stuck to it, and it got made, and it’s there,” said Mark McCaughrean, a senior advisor at ESA and an interdisciplinary scientist on Webb. “Not only did it survive the launch, and it got into space, and not only did it deploy, but it performs. There are reasons to think it’s actually performing better than expectations.”
Webb’s segmented primary mirror — with a diameter of 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) — is the largest ever put into space. The mirror’s light collecting power, coupled with its sensitive, super-cold infrared detectors, allow Webb to peer deeper into the universe — and farther back in time — than humans have ever seen before.
Here’s a description from NASA of the Webb targets scheduled for release Tuesday:
- Carina Nebula: The Carina Nebula is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, located approximately 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. Nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars form. The Carina Nebula is home to many massive stars several times larger than the Sun.
- WASP-96b (spectrum): WASP-96b is a giant planet outside our solar system, composed mainly of gas. The planet, located nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, orbits its star every 3.4 days. It has about half the mass of Jupiter, and its discovery was announced in 2014.
- Southern Ring Nebula: The Southern Ring, or “Eight-Burst” nebula, is a planetary nebula – an expanding cloud of gas surrounding a dying star. It is nearly half a light-year in diameter and is located approximately 2,000 light-years away from Earth.
- Stephan’s Quintet: About 290 million light-years away, Stephan’s Quintet is located in the constellation Pegasus. It is notable for being the first compact galaxy group ever discovered in 1787. Four of the five galaxies within the quintet are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.
Email the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.