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Tuesday, December 06, 2022

NASA is about to reveal the deepest view of the universe ever seen, a day ahead of schedule

Last week, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told us that we would see the “deepest picture of our Universe ever taken” on July 12, thanks to the newly operational James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). And we know that many of you excitedly marked the date on your calendar.

But over the weekend, the space agency announced that it would release the first image a day earlier than planned, at 5 pm EDT (2100 UTC and 7 am AEST on Tuesday, July 12).

The first image will be released by US President Joe Biden in a special live broadcast that you can watch in real time below. We’ll be watching live and sharing the first image with all of you as soon as it’s available. Suffice to say we can’t wait!

What can we expect to see?

JWST can go back in time as much as a hundred million years after the Big Bang, virtually the earliest years of our 13.8-billion-year-old Universe. This is all thanks to its huge primary mirror and its ability to see the ancient extended infrared light of distant space.

Because the Universe is expanding, the light from those early stars shifts from the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths to the longer infrared wavelengths, which JWST can detect in never-before-seen detail.

“If you think about it, this is further than humanity has ever seen before,” Nelson said during a Press conference last week at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

JWST launched in December of last year and is now orbiting the Sun within a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) of Earth.

“It’s going to explore objects in the solar system and atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars, giving us clues as to whether their atmospheres are potentially similar to our own,” Nelson said at the news conference.

“It can answer some questions that we have: Where did we come from? What else is out there? Who are we? And of course it’s going to answer some questions that we don’t even know what they are.”

What are Webb’s first goals?

NASA has conveniently let us know a list of early JWST targets.

Carina Nebula

Stsci 01Evvde13Q2Zv8W5B4K6F4WkrvThe Carina Nebula. (NASA, ESA, Mario Livio (STScI), Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI))

Located about 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina, the Carina Nebula is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in our skies.

Hubble has imaged the Carina Nebula several times, including in infrared; Webb’s images are expected to outperform Hubble’s infrared images. After all, Hubble is primarily an optical and ultraviolet instrument.

Wasp-96b

One of Webb’s stated goals is to observe the atmospheres of planets outside the Solar System, or exoplanets. WASP-96b is one of them, and an absolutely fascinating subject for what should be the first of many such studies.

South Ring Nebula

Stsci 01Evvfsw5W1W5Jg2Bsan1J1Ae5The South Ring Nebula. (The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA))

The South Ring Nebula, also known as NGC 3132, about 2,000 light-years away, is a beautiful bright spot in the southern constellation of Vela. Although it shares a classification with the Carina Nebula, they are more like astronomical opposites: they are the impressive and beautiful remains of a binary star that is in the process of dying.

Stephan’s Quintet

Stsci 01Evt5Mht3343D1X9Ykam9NrqtStephan’s Quintet. (NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO team)

Webb has also been looking much farther from home. Stephan’s Quintet is a group of galaxies located 290 million light-years away, in a formation so compact that it doesn’t seem real. In reality, only four of the five galaxies are interacting; the fifth is much closer to us, only about 40 million light-years away.

SMACS 0723

For his first deep field, Webb has looked at a patch of sky called SMACS 0723, in the southern constellation of Volans.

SMACS 0723 is a particularly good target for this type of observation, because there are massive clusters of galaxies in the foreground. These act like a giant cosmic magnifying glass. Due to the immense mass, its gravity causes a pronounced curvature of the space-time around it, with the effect of increasing the light of more distant objects.

We’re not sure which of these targets will be the subject of the first image to be released on Monday, but we can’t wait to find out. Check out this space!

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