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Shockingly distant galaxies, clues about the atmospheres of alien planets, and unexpected oddities around Jupiter are just some of the scientific treasures discovered by the James Webb Space Telescope.
The days since the first images of the telescope were publicly released have been eventful for astronomers, who have been swept up in a whirlwind of possible discoveries as they studied the first observations of the $10 billion telescope.
“It’s like a birthday and Christmas and an anniversary and a graduation and Thanksgiving and Hanukkah — it’s all combined for us and happens every day,” says Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago.
“It works better than I think almost everyone hoped. It really is a miracle,” says Rachel Somerville, an astronomer at the Flatiron Institute. “It’s not like anything I’ve experienced.”
Several stunning images that were unveiled at press conferences on July 11 and 12 represent just a fraction of what the telescope has seen since it was launched in December and deployed into space.
“The initial discovery was, of course, very exciting. But the real work began only two days later. It was then that the first data became available,” explains Laura Kreidberg, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. in Germany.
“Scientists need evidence,” agrees Misty Bentz, an astronomer at Georgia State University. “We really want to get in and get the scientific data that these beautiful pictures were made of.”
The researchers hurried to download everything that was collected by this tool in order to go through it. Jennifer Lotz, director of the International Gemini Observatory, is part of a team studying one particular field of thousands of galaxies that has been studied many times in the past.
“We know these galaxies pretty well, but seeing these images with James Webb is like putting on glasses,” says Lotz. “Things we couldn’t see before are now just crystal clear. It was stunning. It was truly stunning.”
It’s an emotional experience, and a shared one, as astronomers happily tell their buddies about each revelation. Jessica Spake of the California Institute of Technology burst into tears on the phone when a friend told her about a new analysis of the atmosphere of an exoplanet that orbits a distant star.
“This is the most beautiful view of an exoplanet’s atmosphere I’ve ever seen,” Speik says. “I was in tears.”
This is what it looks like when people see something that no one else has ever seen. “Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.” (Sagan… who else?) We can’t wait to share this with you all. #JWST pic.twitter.com/WT0XIf9lqk
— Natalie Batalha (@nbatalha) July 15, 2022
Researchers usually keep their discoveries secret until they are officially published, but this shouldn’t take long – several scientific reports have begun to appear on the Internet.
One of the main goals of the James Webb Space Telescope was to find extremely distant galaxies, which are so far away that light from them had to travel almost the entire history of the universe to reach the telescope. And astronomers already think they’ve spotted some of them.
“We hope to be able to tell the world what we have found within a few weeks,” says Steven Finkelstein, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin. “It looks really exciting.”
Closer to home, some telescope views of Jupiter startled scientists because they showed rings around the planet, along with its moons.
The rings had been studied before, but “seeing them all together in one image was amazing. It was really incredible,” says Imke de Pater, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley.
She and the others were puzzled by a strange line that appeared along the edge of one side of the planet, suggesting a layer of haze. “So we’re looking into it to find out what it really is,” she says. “Is it haze? Or is it some other radiation, from gases? It’s intriguing.”
And, of course, while this scientific struggle continues, the telescope continues to make new observations.
On July 20 and 21, for example, it observes a mysterious planet outside our solar system called GJ 1214b, Bean says. “We’re going to look at the planet for almost two full days of telescopic time.”
He has been studying this planet for over a decade and says there is nothing like it in our solar system. It is larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, and its true nature is obscured by clouds or haze that other telescopes cannot penetrate.
If all goes according to plan, by this weekend Bean and his colleagues will know what the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) managed to see when it looked at this world.
Until then, all they have to do is wait. “I think at some point I’ll probably look up at the sky and say, ‘JWST is doing its thing right now and looking at my favorite planet,'” Bean says. “This is a special moment.”
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