US President Joe Biden will unveil one of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful ever sent into orbit, late Monday, kicking off two days of celebrations eagerly awaited by space enthusiasts around the world.
• Also read: The “deepest” picture of the universe is revealed
Distant galaxies and nebulae, star nurseries… NASA on Friday announced the names of the first five chosen cosmic targets. But the images, which promise to be spectacular, have been jealously guarded to create suspense.
Joe Biden is set to unveil the first scientific image taken by James Webb himself during a White House event at 5 p.m. local time, attended by US Space Agency chief Bill Nelson, according to NASA.
The latter had promised at the end of June that this surprise bag would contain “the deepest image of our universe ever recorded”. James Webb, a $10 billion engineering gem, has among his main responsibilities the exploration of the early ages of the universe.
The other images will then be unveiled during an online NASA event Tuesday morning. They must both impress the general public with their beauty and demonstrate the full capabilities of the scientific instruments on board to astronomers around the world.
The experts will then be able to interpret the collected data with special software and give the starting signal for a great scientific adventure.
“When I first saw the images (…) I suddenly learned three new things about the universe that I didn’t know before,” Dan Coe told AFP, one of the lucky few in the trust. “It blew my mind,” said this astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who is in charge of James Webb’s operations.
This telescope will “change our understanding of the universe,” he testified.
The first image, expected on Monday, could be of deep field, that is, an image taken with a long exposure to detect the faintest glow, according to a scientific source.
NASA announced on Friday that one such snapshot of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 would be taken. Its peculiarity is that, like a magnifying glass, it can see very distant objects that are behind it – an effect known as gravitational lensing.
The names of the other observed cosmic objects are as poetic as they are intriguing: the Carina Nebula and the Southern Rings (giant clouds of gas and dust in which stars form) and Stephen’s Quintet (a grouping pact of galaxies).
However, the likely majestic colors seen in the photos will not be directly those seen through the telescope.
Light breaks down into different wavelengths, and James Webb works in the infrared range, which the human eye cannot see. Infrared colors are thus “translated” into visible colors.
Thanks to these near- and mid-infrared observations, James Webb will be able to see through impenetrable dust clouds for his predecessor, the mythical Hubble Space Telescope. It was launched in 1990 and is still in operation. While it has little infrared capability, it works primarily in the visible light and ultraviolet.
“Even when Hubble managed to capture the image of a distant galaxy, it was unable to distinguish a squirrel from an elephant,” David Elbaz, a French astrophysicist, summarized for AFP.
“We will discover the formation of stars buried in interstellar dust, galaxies invisible because they are buried in dust dolls,” he said enthusiastically, moved and impatient to discover the images.
Other major differences between the two telescopes: James Webb’s primary mirror is almost three times larger than Hubble’s and is much more evolved: 1.5 million kilometers from Earth versus 600 km for Hubble.
Also scheduled for release on Tuesday is the first James Webb telescope spectroscopy, a technique used to determine the chemical composition of a distant object. In this case WASP-96 b, a giant planet composed mostly of gas and located outside our solar system.
Exoplanets (planets orbiting a star other than our sun) are also one of James Webb’s main areas of research. About 5000 have been discovered since 1995 but they remain very mysterious.
The goal is to study their atmospheres to see if they could prove to be habitable worlds and conducive to the development of life.
The release of these first images marks the official start of the telescope’s first-ever cycle of scientific observation.
Several hundred observing projects proposed by researchers from around the world have already been selected by an expert committee for this first year of operation.