Why, after all, is the James Webb telescope revolutionary?

Concept art shows shapes of the James Webb telescope

Concept art shows shapes of the James Webb telescope

Photo: NASA / NASA

Discovering details about galaxies, planets and other objects in the universe is a closer reality thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest astronomical observatory ever built. Launched in December last year by NASA, in partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency), Webb is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. But why is he so revolutionary?

James Webb aims to achieve historic feats for astronomy, ushering in a new era for scientists and astronomers. The equipment is able to capture details that went unnoticed in other observations. Thus, researchers must have more information to unravel mysteries about distant galaxies, the Solar System, the origin of the universe and our planet.

Distant objects have their light converted to red; if they are extremely distant, their emission becomes infrared. James Webb is able to observe this infrared light in an unprecedented way, which makes it possible to see older space formations. “This could revolutionize our knowledge of how galaxies are formed”, says Jorge Meléndez, professor at the Department of Astronomy at the University of São Paulo (USP).

Also, like its predecessor, the Hubble, the telescope has one big advantage. “Because it is in space, James Webb does not suffer interference from the Earth’s atmosphere, being able to obtain much sharper images than is possible with telescopes on Earth”, says Meléndez.

NASA Scientists Take Selfie at Jamws Webb Telescope

NASA Scientists Take Selfie at Jamws Webb Telescope


For Amâncio Friaça, professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences at USP, the telescope will bring enormous advances. “James Webb will allow us to observe the first objects formed in the Universe, glimpse stars forming inside gaseous nebulae and characterize the atmosphere of exoplanets, planets outside the Solar System”, he says.

“Furthermore, the unexpected and surprising, which always come in the way of scientific investigation, are perhaps the main contributions of this instrument”, says Friaça.

James Webb Telescope Differentials

Every space telescope looks at the “past”, as the light emitted by distant stars and planets needs a certain time to reach Earth. For example, when we look at light from a star located 1,000 light-years away, we are looking at light that was emitted by the star 1,000 years ago. “Therefore, looking at the sky is looking at the past”, explains Meléndez.

James Webb can also contribute to research on planets outside our Solar System. The telescope’s infrared is sensitive to molecules such as water, carbon dioxide and organic substances, giving it the power to see the molecular composition of the atmospheres of planets and moons in the Solar System and exoplanets.

James Webb telescope being assembled

James Webb telescope being assembled


Friaça also highlights the importance of infrared in relation to black holes. “James Webb will allow us to observe the first galaxies that formed and witness the birth of supermassive black holes that appear at the center of large galaxies,” he says. He explains that the equipment will still be able to observe through the nebulae of dust and gas, where stars and planetary systems are born.

An important point about nebulae is that they may contain molecules that are building blocks of life, shedding light on the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere in the cosmos. The study of exoplanet atmospheres could also reveal biosignatures, that is, molecules that indicate the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Expectations around the most complex and powerful space science telescope are high. In addition to planets and stars, James Webb should explore much smaller and fainter space objects, as its mirror is much larger than Hubble’s — 6.5 meters in diameter, against 2.4 meters for its predecessor. That is, the collecting area of ​​the new telescope is equivalent to that of six Hubbles together.

Detailed observations about the universe

On Monday (11), US President Joe Biden released the first image of the deep universe taken by James Webb: a cosmic region known as SMACS 0723, a cluster of galaxies in the constellation of Volans, at 4.6 billions of light years away from Earth.

The next day, NASA showed five more observations from the telescope. Among them, the exoplanet WASP-96b, which should serve to understand other planetary atmospheres; the Stephan’s Quintet group of five galaxies and the Carina Nebula, whose images bring unprecedented details about how stars form and how gas changes in galaxies.

For Meléndez, future images of the device can confirm or deny our current theories in astronomy. “In some cases, it may be necessary to refine some of our theories, to be in better agreement with James Webb’s new observations,” he explains.

The Eta Carinae Nebula is among the first images captured by James Webb

The Eta Carinae Nebula is among the first images captured by James Webb


Webb’s four main scientific instruments

According to information from NASA, the telescope is made up of four large scientific instruments. The first is the Fine Orientation Sensor/Near Infrared Detector and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS). It allows the James Webb precision to obtain high quality images and be used to investigate first light detection, characterization and transit of exoplanets.

The Middle Infrared Instrument (MIRI) has a camera and spectrograph that sees light in the mid-infrared region, with wavelengths longer than our eyes can see. With its sensitive detectors, it will be possible to see redshifted light from distant galaxies, newly forming stars and faint comets.

The Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) is used to scatter light from an object into a spectrum. Thus, it is possible to discover physical properties such as temperature, mass and chemical composition of an object. This instrument was designed to observe 100 objects simultaneously and stands out for being the first spectrograph in space with this capability.

Finally, the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) is the near infrared camera, the telescope’s main imager. It will detect light from the first stars and galaxies in the process of formation, as well as stars in nearby galaxies.

NIRCam has coronagraphs, that is, instruments that block light from a brighter object, making it possible to photograph darker objects nearby. In all, NASA has tested and validated 17 different ways to operate these four main instruments to carry out science operations.

About Abhishek Pratap

Food maven. Unapologetic travel fanatic. MCU's fan. Infuriatingly humble creator. Award-winning pop culture ninja.

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