At a brief White House event on Monday evening, President Biden unveiled an image that NASA and astronomers have hailed as the most profound view yet into our universe’s past.
The image, taken by the James Webb Space Telescope – the largest space telescope ever built – showed a patch of distant sky in which fledgling galaxies were making their way into visibility just 600 million years after the Big Bang.
“This is the oldest documented light in the history of the universe dating back 13 billion – let me repeat, 13 billion years,” Mr Biden said. The president, who apologized for starting the event late, praised NASA for its work in enabling the telescope and the images it will produce.
“We can see possibilities that no one has ever seen before,” Biden said. “We can go places no one has gone before.”
Mr. Biden’s announcement served as a teaser for the telescope’s big cosmic slideshow coming Tuesday morning, when scientists reveal what the Webb has observed over the past six months. You can sign up here for a reminder on your personal digital calendar to get a first look.
For Mr Biden, the reveal of the footage was also an opportunity to engage directly in an event that will almost certainly spark wonder and pride among Americans – at a time when his approval ratings have plummeted as voters recoil from high food and gas prices and Democrats question his ability to fight for gun control and abortion rights.
In a setting in the White House South Auditorium that evoked scenes from the deck of a spaceship on “Star Trek,” Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were joined by Alondra Nelson, acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. ; Bill Nelson, the former Florida senator appointed NASA administrator by Mr. Biden; and Jane Rigby, Webb Telescope Operations Project Scientist. Each was seated at small, widely spaced desks in front of a large screen where other NASA officials appeared. The screen gave way to the cosmic image, which was dotted with tiny dots of galaxies and drew applause from the back of the room.
Mr Nelson, the NASA chief, touted the telescope’s scientific potential during the White House event.
“We’re going to be able to answer questions that we don’t even know what the questions are yet,” he said. When he added that the technology could determine if other planets were habitable, Mr Biden replied with a “Whoa”.
As the ceremony wrapped up and the reporting pool was escorted out of the room, Mr. Biden was heard saying, “I wonder what the press is like in those other places.”
Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope
After traveling almost a million miles to reach a place beyond the moon, the James Webb Space Telescope will spend years observing the cosmos.
One of the Webb Telescope’s most ambitious missions is to study some of the first stars and galaxies that lit up the universe shortly after the Big Bang 14 billion years ago. While Monday’s snapshot may not have gotten that far, it proved the principle of the technique and hinted at what the telescope’s scientific instruments could do more than astronomers have waited decades for. upload.
As the telescope “gathers more data in the years to come, we’ll see to the edges of the Universe like never before,” said Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale University, an expert on black holes and galaxies. primitives, in an e-mail from India.
She added: “It’s beyond my wildest imagination to be alive when we get to see at the edge of black holes and the edge of the universe.”
What was in the image NASA and Biden showed?
On Friday, NASA released a list of five subjects that Webb had recorded with its instruments. But Mr. Biden showed one of them at the White House on Monday.
The image is named SMACS 0723. It is a patch of sky visible from the southern hemisphere on Earth and often visited by Hubble and other telescopes in search of the distant past. It includes a massive cluster of galaxies about four billion light-years away that astronomers use as a sort of cosmic telescope. The cluster’s enormous gravitational field acts like a lens, distorting and magnifying light from galaxies behind it that would otherwise be too faint and distant to see.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for space science, described the image as the deepest view yet into our cosmos’ past.
Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona, who led the construction of NIRCam, one of the Webb telescope cameras that took the picture, said: “This image won’t hold the ‘deepest’ record for long. , but clearly shows the power of this telescope.”
And the rest of the pictures?
NASA will show more images Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time in a live video stream that you can watch on NASA TV or YouTube. They will be on display at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The images are a sightseeing tour of the universe painted in colors that no human eye has seen – the invisible rays of infrared or heat radiation. A small team of astronomers and science outreach experts curated the images to show off the new telescope’s capabilities and knock the socks off the public.
There’s the Southern Ring Nebula, a shell of gas ejected from a dying star about 2,000 light-years away, and the Carina Nebula, a huge swirling expanse of gas and stars comprising some of the most massive and potentially explosive star systems in the world. Milky Way.
Yet another familiar astronomical scene is Stephan’s Quintet, a tight cluster of galaxies about 290 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus.
The team will also release a detailed spectrum of an exoplanet known as WASP-96b, a gas giant half the mass of Jupiter that orbits a star 1,150 light-years away every 3.4 days. Such a spectrum is the kind of detail that could reveal what is in the atmosphere of this world.
Why did it take so long to share the first images of Webb?
Heading into space on Christmas Day last year was just the first step for the James Webb Space Telescope.
The spacecraft has been orbiting the second Lagrange point, or L2, about a million miles from Earth since Jan. 24. At L2, the gravitational forces of the Sun and Earth keep Webb’s motion around the Sun in sync with that of the Earth.
Before it got there, the parts of the telescope had to be carefully unfolded: the sunshade that keeps the instruments cool so they could accurately capture weak infrared light, the 18 gold-plated hexagonal pieces of the mirror.
For astronomers, engineers and officials watching on Earth, the deployment has been a tense time. There were 344 one-time failures, which means that if one of the actions hadn’t worked, the telescope would have ended up as useless space junk. They all worked.
The telescope’s four science instruments also had to be turned on. In the months following the telescope’s arrival at L2, its operators painstakingly aligned the 18 mirrors. In April, the mid-infrared instrument, or MIRI, which requires the coldest temperatures, was cooled to minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit, and scientists were able to begin a final round of checks. Once these and other steps were taken, the science could begin.
How does the Webb compare to the Hubble Telescope?
The Webb telescope’s main mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter, compared to Hubble’s 2.4 meters, giving Webb about seven times more light-gathering capacity and therefore the ability to see farther into the Earth. space and therefore deeper into the past.
Another crucial difference is that Webb is equipped with cameras and other instruments that are sensitive to infrared radiation, or “heat.” The expansion of the universe causes light that would normally be in visible wavelengths to shift to longer infrared wavelengths that are normally invisible to the human eye.