Ep. 650: First Light for JWST

Well, this is it, we’re finally going to talk about the James Webb Space Telescope. After decades of development, delays and budget creep, the powerful infrared observatory is at its final home at the L2 Lagrange Point. Yesterday we saw the first scientific images from the telescope, and according to Pamela’s rules, we’re finally allowed to talk about it.

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Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

Webb Space Telescope (NASA)

What is a Lagrange Point? (NASA)

James E. Webb (NASA)

CosmoQuestX (Twitch)

NASA’s Webb Delivers Deepest Infrared Image of Universe Yet (NASA)

First Images from the James Webb Space Telescope (NASA)

VIDEO: JWST First Full-Color Images Explained (Fraser Cain)

Zoomable Image: Deep Field SMACS 0723 (NASA Webb)

SMACS J0723.3-7327 Color Images (STSci)

Gravitational Lensing (Hubblesite)

Early Universe (NASA Webb)

The Hubble Deep Fields (ESA)

Exoplanet WASP-96 b – NIRISS transmission spectrum (ESA)

Hot-Saturn Exoplanet Discovered by TESS, Characterized Using Asteroseismology (Sci-News)

Hubble Finds Evidence that a New Atmosphere May Have Formed on a Rocky Exoplanet (NASA)

NASA Finds a Large Amount of Water in an Exoplanet’s Atmosphere (Caltech)

Spitzer (Caltech)

NASA’s Webb Sheds Light on Galaxy Evolution, Black Holes (NASA)

A Shocking Surprise in Stephan’s Quintet (Caltech)

Chandra X-ray Observatory (Harvard)

NASA’s Webb Captures Dying Star’s Final ‘Performance’ in Fine Detail (NASA)

Messier 57 (The Ring Nebula) (NASA)

A Glowing Pool of Light: Planetary Nebula NGC 3132 (Hubblesite)

Planetary Nebulas (CfA Harvard | Smithsonian)

White Dwarf (Swinburne University)

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Paramount+)

NASA’s Webb Reveals Cosmic Cliffs, Glittering Landscape of Star Birth (NASA)

Eta Carinae (NASA)

The Homunculus Nebula (Sky & Telescope)

Star Formation (CfA Harvard | Smithsonian)

Stellar Evolution (Swinburne University)

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(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:03:56] Astronomy Cast episodes 650. Welcome to Astronomy Cast for weekly Fact space journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain and the publisher of Universe Today, a bit of space in astronomy journals for over 20 years. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmic Quest. Hey, Pamela, how you doing? 

Pamela Gay [00:04:23] I am doing well. I am super excited. This is the last episode of our 15th season, and we finally have data from a telescope that we expected to present the data like ten years ago. All right, well, let’s get into it. Finally, we have it. 

Fraser Cain [00:04:43] Well, this is it. We are finally going to talk about the James Webb Space Telescope after decades of development delays, budget creep. The powerful infrared observatory is at its final home at the L2 Lagrange point yesterday. At the time that we’re recording this. We saw the first scientific images from the telescope. And according to Pamela, this rules were finally allowed to talk about it. Now, I got to apologize if if people hear some like wind noise during this episode, I’m recording this outside. While people are working on our studio. So it’s going to anyway, hopefully this will be the last time, the first and last time you hear this kind of of audio quality. All right, Pamela, I like I need you to, like, say the words. Does does James Webb exist now? 

Pamela Gay [00:05:32] Well, James Webb is dead. For us, tea is functional and hanging out at Lagrange two. And it is a so far fully functional space telescope. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:44] We did it. 

Pamela Gay [00:05:45] We did well. We had nothing to do with it. All people did it. And they should be proud. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:49] Yeah, absolutely. So. So where were you yesterday? I guess watching those first images come in. 

Pamela Gay [00:05:57] I was in this very chair doing a watch party for Twitch.tv slash Cosmic Quest X, where we watched everything come in together. I did the same thing for President Biden’s extraordinarily delayed release of the very first image on Monday. And, yeah, now I’m happy to finally get to say, okay, I have actually let myself learn things about the mission, and we have stuff to discuss. 

Fraser Cain [00:06:30] You’ve been learning things about the mission this entire time. You just. 

Pamela Gay [00:06:33] I know. 

Fraser Cain [00:06:34] You just have these rules that you don’t that you like to be disappointed in. Talk about missions that haven’t delivered science data. And that’s fine. That’s your rule. We will, we’ll we’ll give you that. You’re the expert. But now, now you’ve got to play by Fraser’s rules. So. So so what did we see yesterday? 

Pamela Gay [00:06:54] So? So yesterday, it started out with a whole lot of her, it works. And getting to meet and greet a whole lot of people around the world as they talked about this telescope they’ve been working on building. Then they launched straight into the images. And one of the things that I kind of wish they’ve done that we’re going to do here today. And for those of you listening on the podcast, all of the images that I’m showing on the YouTube, you can get on our website, astronomy, Cars.com, the thing I wish they had really done is shown us with the state of the art was prior to us getting its happy little mirrors on what it was looking at. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:36] Yeah, we did that on our on our YouTube. Like we did a YouTube episode video yesterday on on my channel and we did that. We just compared each time with the stuff that we had known about previously. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:48] And and so they started out with smacks 023.3-7327. This is a galaxy cluster that was observed as part of the Hubble Relics project, which was using gravitational lensing by relatively near galaxy clusters to try and identify what are the sources that ionized our universe into being transparent, when it re ionized. So this is a known massive galaxy cluster. It is about 4 billion light years away. It is known to have a handful of these super cute little gravitational lens background objects in it. And then Jaydev Versts spent a few hours looking at it and greatly, increased both the resolution and the depth with which we’re able to see this field demonstrating Auster’s one two punch on its predecessors. And with this new image, we’re seeing, kind of endless arcs of these gravitationally lensed galaxies, as well as exceptional detail on the galaxies within the cluster itself. And this is one of those images that leads me both sad that we’re not looking directly at, like a Hubble Deep field, where we’d be able to see these extremely distant galaxies without the distortions of gravitational lensing. But at the same time, it’s like now we can get data on the merger process in this 4 billion light years away cluster that we didn’t have before. And we get to see in a very short exposure, remarkably gravitationally lensed objects. There wasn’t a whole lot of science released yesterday, but I am guessing that in the coming weeks and months we are going to get an awesome saw. The furthest, faintest, reddest, most active, all the adjectives galaxy from the early universe that has ever been seen. 

Fraser Cain [00:10:11] Yeah, I think it was important. People got a little confused, especially on like online, just about what was going on here. Like this was a 12.5 hour exposure from Webb, which is the equivalent of a three week observation by Hubble. But Hubble never did a three week observation on this object. Correct. So. And so but but essentially web in in just half a day did a deep field and he can do them whenever it wants, wherever it wants all the time. And so it hasn’t even done its version of the deep field that that’s coming in the future when it spends three weeks staring at some point in the sky. 

Pamela Gay [00:10:53] And it’s extraordinarily important to note this is not a deep field Hubble Deep Field images. It it involved finding the darkest, most empty points on the sky possible and pointing Hubble at those absolutely empty to other telescopes, parts of the sky here they they purposely here they purposefully pointed at a known to be extremely crowded part of the sky. They knew there was a relatively close galaxy cluster there just after the awesome gravitationally lensed objects. 

Fraser Cain [00:11:31] All right. What was the next image? 

Pamela Gay [00:11:33] So they actually didn’t go to an image. Next, they instead went to a spectra of, Wasp 96 B. This is one of two known exoplanets that don’t have clouds in their atmosphere. This is a hot Saturn orbiting its star every few days on an orbit that makes Mercury’s orbit look huge. Yeah. Now, the reason they looked at this is as the star’s light shines through the atmosphere of that hot Saturn of that gas giant, the starlight passes through the atmosphere, allowing us to see what molecules are in that atmosphere absorbing out light. And in this case, one of those molecules happens to be water vapor. So they spotted a ton of water vapor and demonstrated that, yes, j t can indeed take spectra of extrasolar planets atmospheres. 

Fraser Cain [00:12:34] And the thing that I really like about this is that the entire transit took 6.5 hours. And, and Webb was able to just watch the whole thing from the beginning of the transit through all the way out to the other side of the transit. And this is this is not something the Hubble can do because Hubble is is orbiting around the Earth. And so unless the object is lined up in a way that it can see it for the entire orbit, Hubble can only see it for 45 minutes at a time, and then the Earth is blocking its viewer has to go look at something else. And and so you can never get this just continuous observation. And so like we’re just in the infancy of observing the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. It’s only been done a couple of times. Hubble’s done it. Spitzer’s done it. Yeah. And not to this level of of sensitivity and and so to be able to see all these separate absorption lines of water, to really know what’s going on in the upper atmosphere of the planet, this is it’s groundbreaking. But I’m sure for a lot of people it was underwhelming because this is not what they were expecting. They were hoping to see a little planet with the clouds and and aliens running around on it. But but no, you just get really spectra. But yeah, really good confirmation that there’s water vapor, the atmosphere of another planet. And and that is exciting. Yeah. Yeah. Totally. 

Pamela Gay [00:13:59] And and it’s in the comparison to Spitzer that you’re completely right. This is what we need to be comparing this to and with Stephan’s Quintet, which is the object I personally was most looking forward to. The reason I was super looking forward to it is in the Spitzer image that sucker has a smiley face. It’s a super smiley smiley face. There’s this field of view, which is familiar to most amateur astronomers, has five different galaxies. One of them loves to get cut off on the images. There’s a blue one. It’s an interloper. It’s not actually part of the gravitationally bound group. But this other line of systems, includes two that are clearly interacting close together. And and their course in, in the Spitzer image appear like little eyeballs in a shockwave they’re generating, makes a smiley face. And and in the spitzer image, we were able to confirm something that we’d seen in radio that Chandra’s image, which often gets superimposed on top of a Hubble image. Chandra had seen this blue wall between some of the merging systems. Spitzer saw it as a green wall between the systems, and that wall isn’t visible in the optical images like you can take with a backyard telescope. And we’ve been trying to figure out what the heck that wall is. And I was hoping that you could tell us. I was hoping that j ust would have an even better smiley face. And here the release of the j ust image was nothing I had hoped for, but still very cool because yes, it totally saw the wall between the objects. They weren’t able to say for certain what kind of shockwave it was yesterday, but what they were able to do instead was say, hey, let’s look in detail, that north most in the image galaxy. And when we do that, we can see jets coming out of the disk of the galaxy that are probably being caused by that galaxy actively feeding as material is sent careening into the core of the galaxy. During this merger. So many of the galaxies in this group. 

Fraser Cain [00:16:31] And what I what I found really interesting about this image, I mean, Stephan’s Quintet, this is, as you said, this is an object you can see with an amateur telescope. It’s been known about for hundreds of years. I’ve taken pictures of it. It looks really cool. Yeah, but but to to see it with this level of detail you’re seeing for galaxies interact with each other with tidal tails and streams and gas shuttling between the galaxies. You’re seeing them tearing each other apart. And one of and material is streaming into this black hole and you’re getting these jets and and this is very rare now for a large cluster of galaxies to be doing this so close to us, you know, the the universe is so much less dense today than it was back in the early history. But if you look back to just a few billion, not even just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, you’re going to see much more of this and sort of find an example that’s close, gives a really good fingerprint for them. When they see these things so much farther away to go. Okay. Yeah, this is like Stephan’s Quintet, but just at the very beginning of the universe. And so it’s really valuable to be able to see something like this so close. But then they were able to compare it to. To what, the real data, I guess the really, you know, what Webb was designed for is to see this stuff that is just a few hundred billion years after the Big Bang. 

Pamela Gay [00:17:59] And, and it’s it’s just kind of awesome that we’re gonna learn all these details we didn’t know. And it it’s, it’s sad to me that we didn’t get enough science out of this yesterday. They went they took these snapshots. They presented them went aren’t these gorgeous. We went yes. And our first episode of our 16th season, coming September 2022, is hopefully going to highlight a ton of science. Science. I wish we had more science. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:32] Like so Webb has a has a spectrograph that can do 100 galaxies simultaneously. Yes. So in that image of Max, it can it can analyze the spectra, the chemical fingerprints of of 100 galaxies at a time in that image. It can do this. It can do. It’s so much science, but I’m sure the way this worked was they gather the data. They did a quick image processing so that we can even see it. But now astronomers are going to be spending probably decades in some of these pictures studying all everything that was gathered. And these are just five images, like my mind is blown at how much and how much science is going to be happening from this telescope. All right. What was the next image. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:18] So so the the next image they gave was actually a, planetary nebula. This is the southern, ring nebula. It looks exceedingly similar to the Ring Nebula next to, Vega in the constellation Lyra. They’re slightly, slightly different. I’m not sure how you pick one over the other. And in the Hubble image that we have, you can see it’s a cool system. It has a binary star and its core, the white dwarf of the binary systems hanging out, being little, tiny and faint, barely visible. And there’s cool detail. But when we switch from that Hubble image over to instead looking at a J. Aust image, what we see is all of those ring structures are no longer nine smooth rings, but are instead these lacy filamentary structures. And we start to be able to see how this planetary nebula was exhaled in puffs with a variety of different layers in the system. And that little white dwarf suddenly pops out, becoming visible. And what I love about this one is one of Hubble’s key directives. One of its rays on that was to figure out what the heck is going on with planetary nebulae, which basically look like really fascinating smudges from the surface of the Earth. Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:20:54] Yeah, it was one of the science goals for Hubble. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:56] And it didn’t quite get there. It got us further along the path, but there’s still a whole lot of we do not know what is going on. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:04] Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:21:05] This quick image starts to tell us that T is going to provide us a lot of detail to probably initially confuse this a whole lot more, but eventually allow us so much greater of an understanding. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:19] And again, like what you’re seeing is you’re seeing these shells of material that were blown out by the star each time it puffed out as a red giant and then collapsed back down and then puffed out, and each one threw this shell out into space. And the chemical composition of each one of those shells is going to be a little bit different based on this phase that the star was in, you’re watching the final evolution of this star as it is proceeding to its death. And and then astronomers can look at each little piece of this picture and run the story backwards to, and then use that to look for other stars to see if they’re what phase of their stellar evolution they’re in, as they’re going through their their death throes, and could give us a much better sense of when stars are are about to die. And. It’s I don’t know, it’s I can’t think of like, all I can think of are like, morbid versions, right? You’re, like, looking at a rotting corpse. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:20] Well. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:21] We are, it’s like a CSI episode where they’re like, measuring the which kinds of bugs are eating the body. But. But a star. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:30] But here we use what ionization level indicates the temperature of the system. So we can measure the cooling. But yeah yeah yeah, yeah. The position. Same thing. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:39] Yeah. Exactly. And I also love that bonus that they were able to see the binary star at the heart of this, of this nebula. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:48] And so it just makes me wonder how much of the chaos we see is actually planetary nebula inside of planetary nebula from binary systems like that, creating the things that have been confusing us for decades. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:03] And like one of those big questions right now is like, what does the future hold for the sun? Will we make one of these when the sun dies? Or was this binary star key in whipping up the material and firing it out into these interesting shells? And this is still an unsolved mystery. We don’t know. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:23] Well, we know that the atmosphere will get puffed off. What we don’t know is what shape planetary nebula different stars will create. And this is going to start to explain all those crazy Spirograph shapes. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:37] All right. The next one, the final image released. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:39] All right. So the final one released was from the Carina Nebula, which is again one of these massive, nebulae that can be seen, easily from the surface of the planet. It’s a southern hemisphere object. So go Australia, South America, Africa. You’ve got you’ve got this one. We do not, it’s a gorgeous star forming region, home to the ever famous ETA Carina, which, lives inside the human nebula and will hopefully go supernova and be observed by human beings one day. But he can’t exactly observe the entire nebula. Spitzer spent a great deal of time back in 2005 peering through this. Spitzer had a 0.85m mirror. Had to be austere 6.5m. This means that it has roughly seven times the resolution working in similar wavelengths. What we have is a little tiny snapshot of the Mystic Mountains, and what we’re seeing is an edge of this giant molecular cloud that is collapsing and fragmenting. And as it dies, new stars are lighting up. We are seeing a level of detail we’ve never quite seen before. And what I’m really looking forward to is when we have a whole variety of these images of both Carina and the Orion star forming region that will allow us to go through and see just what did the first few million years of star formation look like in these systems? 

Fraser Cain [00:25:22] And when you look at that image, like the the stars at the top of the image are these hot blue white stars, and there’s this faint blue nebulosity around them. And then there’s this very clear. You call the mountains this cliff edge, this dust front where the hot radiation from the stars is blowing away the nebula, piling it up, forming new stars, but also clearing the material away from stars. And this will give us some sense of how star formation begins, but also ends. When does this material get blown away? Starving the stars from any further accretion and any further growth? And it is this give and take that astronomers still don’t really understand. And and you see hundreds of new stars in this image that had never been seen before at different stages of stellar evolution. Again, each one would be its own doctoral thesis, its own research paper. And and we will see them coming. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:25] It’s really an amazing shot. And the only thing that I have to say left me a little bit. Confused by by the gender image reveal is I was fully expecting them to do something like what Spitzer and some of the other telescopes have done, and mapped the infrared to not the exact colors we would see if we were looking at these regions with an optical telescope. We we got very used to the reds and greens of Spitzer images, and it was gorgeous. And and then we’re seeing what looks much more like the color palette used for Hubble’s Pillars of Creation when we look at this. Yeah. And and I have to keep reminding myself, well, they just shifted everything into, well, something familiar and beautiful. 

Fraser Cain [00:27:23] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s purely an esthetic choice. I mean, the yeah, what, what, what Giglio is to is really doing is just capturing images of different filters, different wavelengths of infrared light. And they are assembling those different wavelengths and saying, this one is red, this one is blue, and this one is green. So that we could see it because we wouldn’t be able to see anything. Like literally if that’s true, you know, you know, maybe you put your hand on a picture of data that maybe you could feel it, but that’s about it. You wouldn’t be able to see it. It would just look like like a white screen. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:57] I guess I’d go with dark screen. It would just be a dark screen. 

Fraser Cain [00:28:01] Sure, a dark screen. Yeah. Again, you can only feel it with your hands. You could, like, pulled out your hands at arm’s length and just warm yourself by the glow of a of a T image, but they have to turn them into visible light so that we can see them. But yeah, more and more comparisons. More showing our how the the. How the these images are produced would be really interesting to me, or at least to be able to help explain to other people, because that question comes up over and over and over again. But still, that’s we got time. Now we have a get there. Yeah. Well phenomenal. What a day. What a what a week, what a decade. It’s incredible that we we got here. And I think our greatest victory is that now you will name this, you will see this telescope. We will talk about it. We will talk about the data. And as you said, when we come back in September, we will be all over the data results that have been coming out over the course of the of the summer. So thank you, Pamela. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:02] Thank you, Fraser. And I have to say thank you to all the amazing people out in our audience. My dogs in the background are also saying thank you. So thank you from everyone in our household to Felix Goot, William Andrews Gould, Andy Kelly, Jeff Collins, Simon Parton, Kellyanne and David Parker, Jeremy Kerwin, Stuart Mills, Rob Cuffe, Harold Burden, Hagen, Marco Rossi, Matthew Horstman, Daniel Loosely, Philip. Walker, Jim. Schooler, Scott. Beaver, David. Gates, Nikki. Lynch, Alex. Cohen, rando. The lonely sand person, conception ankle, Scott. Cohen, Paul L Hayden, Gregory. Singleton, Matthias. Hayden, Justin Proctor, Nile Bruce, disaster arena, Jeff. Wilson. Cooper, Tim McMahon. Nate. Detwiler, Omar. Del. Riviera, Kenneth. Ryan, Alex. Rain, Alan Mone. Thank you all and I hope to see you in office hours, which will continue through the summer. But this is the last episode of season 15. We return in September. 

Fraser Cain [00:30:16] Thanks, everyone, and we’ll see you in two months go by. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:26] Astronomy cast is a joint product of the Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you. Thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast. 

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