Ahead of the largest preview the world of astronomy has ever seen, NASA has released the Cosmic A List that will appear through the lens of its new colossal space telescope.
And it’s not just the stars. There are galaxies, even a planet, and what promises to be the deepest back-in-time insight that humanity has ever been able to achieve.
On Tuesday, the first images of the $ 10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be shared with the world.
Only a handful of the thousands of scientists and engineers working on the project have seen them. But the words “spectacular” and “beautiful” are whispered among those who have.
In a teaser before the main release, NASA, the European and Canadian space agencies, which collaborated on the JWST, released a list of the five places in the universe that were first photographed by the telescope.
The locations aren’t exactly household names, but they have been carefully chosen to showcase the capabilities of the new infrared telescope and its huge 6.5-meter gold-plated mirror.
The first is the Carina Nebula, a 50 light-year-wide cloud of dust and stars 1000 light-years from Earth. It is one of the most beautiful objects in our galaxy. But it is also important to understand how we came into being. The colossal cloud of dust and gas is one of the most active star-forming regions discovered so far. It is likely that our solar system formed in a place just like that.
Astrophysicist, Professor Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester, said: ‘Infrared allows you to penetrate through that dust and gas.
“It will give us a whole new perspective.”
The star-forming regions are more than scientifically interesting, according to Dr. Jeffery Kargel of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.
“They are not only beautiful, but they are philosophically mind-blowing and even spiritually moving when one ponders the processes of creation and destruction and the almost certain origins of life in many, many planets around many stars in the nebula.”
Probably the most mind-blowing target is one that is little known outside the field of astronomy.
A region called SMACS 0723, where huge clusters of distant galaxies act to bend light due to their enormous gravity. This “gravitational lens” shows the first light in the universe.
We haven’t been able to see it before because the light is in the infrared spectrum – beyond the optics of the Hubble Space Telescope and invisible through our dusty atmosphere on Earth.
The award, Professor Barstow said, is “the first light”: the potential JWST must capture the very first light in the universe that was born about 400 million years after the Big Bang.
“Webb is the only tool we have to do this”, said prof. Barstow.
Will JWST be able to distinguish any object in infrared darkness? We will have to wait to find out.
There will be an entirely new view of a group of colliding galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet, as well as the “cosmic smoke ring” left by an exploded star called the Southern Ring Nebula.
The end goal is tiny compared to the others. A planet called WASP-96-b, more than 1000 light years from Earth, orbiting a star very similar to our Sun.
It is hoped that the JWST measurements of this planet will demonstrate its capabilities as a tool for seeking life in other parts of the universe.
“This will not be a visual spectacle, but it will be a scientific treasure,” said Dr. Kargel.
JWST will be able to study the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere in unprecedented detail, imagining it as it passes in front of its star.
Don’t get too excited: WASP-96-b is a Jupiter-like planet very close to its star, so it is almost certainly burning and lifeless.
These dark objects in the night sky can leave quite a few people cold. But the excitement among astronomers, cosmologists and planetary scientists ahead of Tuesday’s big reveal is palpable.
“Attack the brain, lower the hatches and wait for your mind to explode. It will be Category 5,” said Dr. Kargel.