The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope – Copyright NASA/ESA/CSA/AFP/File Handout
Pierre Celerier with Lucie Aubourg in Washington
The James Webb Space Telescope illuminated 2022 with dazzling images of the early universe after the Big Bang, heralding a new era of astronomy and untold revelations about the cosmos for years to come.
The most powerful observatory sent into space succeeds the Hubble telescope, which is still in operation, and began transmitting its first cosmic images in July.
“Essentially it performs better than expected in almost all areas,” said Massimo Stiavelli, chief of the Webb mission office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Scientists already say the Webb telescope, now orbiting the sun a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth, should last 20 years, twice its guaranteed lifespan.
“The instruments are more efficient, the optics are sharper and more stable. We have more fuel and we use less fuel,” Stiavelli said.
Stability is vital for the clarity of images.
“Our requirement was similar to Hubble’s, in terms of pointing accuracy. And we ended up being seven times better,” added the head of the mission office.
Public appetite for discoveries has been fueled by the colorfulness of the telescope’s images.
Light from the most distant galaxies has stretched from the visible spectrum, visible to the naked eye, to the infrared, which Webb is equipped to observe with unprecedented resolution.
This allows the telescope to detect the faintest glimmers in the distant Universe with unprecedented resolution, see through the veil of dust that masks the appearance of stars in a nebula, and analyze the atmosphere of exoplanets, orbiting stars outside our system. solar.
– 18 petals –
“The first year (of observation) is a way to test the tool for small, rocky planets in the habitable zone that could potentially be Earth-like,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, an associate professor of astronomy at Cornell University.
“And the tests are beautiful. They are spectacular.
Webb took off at the end of 2021 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, capping off a 30-year project at the US space agency NASA.
It took 10,000 people and $10 billion to put the 6.2-ton observatory in space.
En route to the final orbit, Webb unfurled a five-layered sunshade the size of a tennis court followed by a 6.5-meter primary mirror made up of 18 gold-coated hexagonal segments, or petals.
Once calibrated to less than a millionth of a meter, the 18 petals began to collect the pulsating stars of light.
On July 12, the first images underscored Webb’s capabilities by revealing thousands of galaxies, some dating to close to the birth of the Universe, and a nursery of stars in the Carina Nebula.
Jupiter has been captured in incredible detail that will hopefully help to understand how the giant gas planet works.
– ‘Too many’ galaxies –
The blue, orange and gray tones of the images of the “Pillars of Creation”, gigantic columns of dust where stars are born, were captivating.
Scientists saw the revelations as a way to rethink their models of star formation.
Researchers using the new observatory have found the most distant galaxies ever observed, one of which existed only 350 million years after the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago.
Galaxies appear extremely bright and may have started forming 100 million years earlier than theories predicted.
“In the distant Universe, we have an excess of galaxies compared to the models,” David Elbaz, scientific director of astrophysics at France’s Commission for Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy, told AFP.
Another surprise has been that where Hubble observed essentially irregularly shaped galaxies, the precision of the Webb telescope produces magnificent spiral galaxies similar to our own.
This has led to reflection on a possible universal model that could be one of the keys to star formation.
Webb also opened up a profusion of clusters of millions of major stars, which could be the potential missing link between the first stars and the first galaxies.
In the field of exoplanets, Webb focused on a distant gas giant called WASP-96 b, which was discovered in 2014.
Nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, WASP-96 b is about half the mass of Jupiter and orbits its star in just 3.4 days.
Webb provided the first confirmation that carbon dioxide is present in Wasp 39-b’s atmosphere.
But for Stiavelli, “Some of the most important things have yet to be observed or revealed.”