Backyard Astronomy – The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope are just the tip of the cosmic iceberg
It’s often said, a picture is worth a thousand words and the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope did not disappoint. At the July 12 press conference, the world had a front row seat to the most remarkable images of the universe ever taken. Over the course of the hour, five images left us wanting more. This is just the tip of the cosmic iceberg.
The deep-field image showed thousands of galaxies, including a few that appear stretched out. This is not a defect of the telescope. This is the distortion caused by the gravity of a large foreground galaxy.
Einstein predicted this warping or curvature of the fabric of spacetime, much like someone standing on a trampoline where the rubber mat is warped. The larger the object, the greater the distortion of light. To show the power of James Webb, the area of space where the deep-field image was taken was as small as a grain of sand held at arm’s length. This cluster is located 4.6 billion light-years away. This is how long it took for light to reach us and when the sun and planets were slowly created from the solar nebula.
Launched on December 25, 2021, the mighty Ariane 5 rocket delivered the seven-ton telescope to space, where it was deployed and gracefully continued its journey. It traveled for another 30 days to its final position, known as Lagrange 2 – a point in space about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, or about four times the Earth-Moon distance. Unlike the Hubble – which was launched in 1990 with a faulty mirror, requiring a repair mission in 1993 to fit it with corrective lenses – James Webb is too far from Earth for a service mission. Who knows if there will be such a mission down the road if needed, but for now there are no plans to visit the telescope.
The $10 billion project is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, along with other companies. Canada’s contribution is the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) used to point the massive telescope, as well as the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS). Thousands of people around the world have worked on this project which began in 1996 when it was first called the Next Generation Telescope. In 2002 the name was changed to James Webb Space Telescope – named after the man who served as NASA’s administrator from 1961 to 1968. Those were the early days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
The Webb project has suffered setbacks along the way, including a redesign, and the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped matters. Upon completion, the 18 gold-plated six-sided honeycomb mirrors measure a total of 6.5 meters wide, compared to Hubble’s single mirror of 2.4 meters wide. This translates to greater light-gathering power, as well as its infrared ability to observe heat signatures through interstellar dust clouds.
Another essential part of the telescope is the sunshade, measuring the size of a tennis court. Composed of a lightweight material with special thermal properties, the five layers will provide a shield against the heat and light of the sun, as well as the heat from its instruments, allowing the sensitive infrared to operate without interference. The mirror will operate at -223 degrees Celsius and the rest of the equipment close to absolute zero, which is -273 degrees Celsius.
In the wise words of Carl Sagan, “somewhere there is something amazing waiting to be known,” the James Webb Space Telescope has opened a portal of information to discovery. Will we ever see the first infant stars and galaxies dating back 13.8 billion years? Only time will tell.
Known as “The Backyard Astronomer”, Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, guest speaker and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada as well as past president of the RASC Ottawa Centre. He has been interviewed on over 50 Canadian radio stations as well as on television across Canada and the United States. In recognition of his public awareness of astronomy, the International Astronomical Union honored him by naming the asteroid (22406) Gary Boyle. Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator, Facebook and his website: www.wondersofastronomy.com