Incredibly crisp image of a nearby galaxy captured by NASA’s new $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope demonstrates huge leap in space photography
- NASA shared side-by-side images captured by its Webb and Spitzer telescopes
- Both show the Large Magellanic Cloud – a galaxy that orbits the Milky Way
- But the Webb image captures the foreground stars in much sharper detail
- It also reveals details such as clouds of interstellar gas and background stars
NASA has shared an incredibly crisp image of a nearby galaxy, captured by its new James Webb Space Telescope.
For comparison, it also shared an image of the same galaxy captured by its now retired Spitzer Space Telescope, which launched in 2003 and was the first to provide high-resolution images of the near- and mid-infrared universe.
While the Spitzer image shows a blur of around seven nearby stars located in the Large Magellanic Cloud – a satellite galaxy that orbits the Milky Way – the James Webb image captured the foreground stars in sharp detail.
It also reveals more subtle details such as wispy clouds of interstellar gas and hundreds of background stars and galaxies in what NASA calls ‘unprecedented detail’.
The two images illustrate the huge advances in space photography capable with the new James Webb Telescope, now that all four of its science instruments are in ‘perfect alignment’.
Two images of the Large Magellanic Cloud captured by Spitzer (left) and Webb (right). The Webb image not only shows the foreground stars in sharp detail but also more subtle details such as wispy clouds of interstellar gas and hundreds of background stars and galaxies
Instruments on the James Webb Space Telescope
NIRCam (Near InfraRed Camera) an infrared imager from the edge of the visible through the near infrared
NIRSpec (Near InfraRed Spectrograph) will also perform spectroscopy over the same wavelength range.
MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) will measure the mid-to-long-infrared wavelength range from 5 to 27 micrometers.
FGS/NIRISS (Fine Guidance Sensor and Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph), is used to stabilize the line-of-sight of the observatory during science observations.
‘I’m delighted to report that the telescope alignment has been completed with performance even better than we had anticipated,’ said Michael McElwain, James Webb Space Telescope project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, according to CBS News.
‘We basically reached a perfect telescope alignment. There’s no adjustment to the telescope optics that would make material improvements to our science performance.’
The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope was launched in December 2021 and is expected to be fully operational by the end of June 2022.
It is intended to succeed the Hubble Space Telescope as NASA’s flagship mission in astrophysics.
The telescope is composed of 18 hexagonal mirror segments, fitted together into one large, 21-foot-wide mirror.
During its decade or more in orbit, Webb will be used by teams of astronomers to study a wide variety of celestial phenomena, from exoplanets to black holes.
It is able to peer further into the history of the universe than any space telescope before it, in part due to its position 930,000 miles from the Earth.
James Webb has four key instruments onboard – a Near InfraRed Camera (NIRCam), a Near InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec), a Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) and a Fine Guidance Sensor and Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS).
The test image was captured by MIRI – Webb’s coldest instrument – at 7.7 microns.
It is compared to a past image of the same target taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera at 8.0 microns.
SLIDE TO REVEAL: The same view of the Large Magellanic Cloud – a satellite galaxy that orbits the Milky Way – captured by the Spitzer and Webb space telescopes
The Webb Space Telescope is composed of 18 hexagonal mirror segments, fitted together into one large, 21-foot-wide mirror.
NASA said that Webb, with its significantly larger primary mirror and improved detectors, will allow scientists to see the infrared sky with improved clarity, enabling even more discoveries.
Scientists predict that Webb will be able to image distant objects up to 100 times too faint for the Hubble Space Telescope to see.
With its instruments aligned, the Webb telescope now awaits a final instrument calibration before it officially begins studying distant stars later this summer.
In July, the telescope will share its first batch of science images, targeting galaxies and objects that ‘highlight all the Webb sciences themes … from the early Universe, to galaxies over time, to the life cycle of stars, and to other worlds,’ said Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
THE JAMES WEBB TELESCOPE
The James Webb telescope has been described as a ‘time machine’ that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.
The telescope will be used to look back to the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and observe the sources of stars, exoplanets, and even the moons and planets of our solar system.
The vast telescope, which has already cost more than $7 billion (£5 billion), is considered a successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope
The James Webb Telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of roughly 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).
Officials say the cost may exceed the $8 billion (£5.6 billion) program cap set by Congress. The space agency has already poured $7 billion (£5 billion) into the telescope.
When it is launched in 2021, it will be the world’s biggest and most powerful telescope, capable of peering back 200 million years after the Big Bang.