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Biden to unveil first image from James Webb Space Telescope

They must both impress the general public with their beauty, but also demonstrate to astronomers around the world the full power of onboard scientific instruments. (Photo: 123RF)

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden is due to reveal late Monday one of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful ever sent into orbit, kicking off two days of excitement eagerly awaited by space enthusiasts around the world. .

Distant galaxies and nebulae nurseries of stars, NASA announced on Friday the names of the first five cosmic targets chosen. But the images, which promise to be spectacular, have so far been jealously guarded in order to create suspense.

Joe Biden is to reveal the first scientific image taken by James Webb himself, according to NASA, during an event at the White House at 5:00 p.m. local time, in the presence of the boss of the American space agency, Bill Nelson.

The latter had promised at the end of June that this surprise bag would contain “the deepest image ever taken of our Universe”. An engineering gem worth US$10 billion, James Webb has among his main missions the exploration of the early ages of the Universe.

The other images will then be revealed at a NASA online event on Tuesday morning. They must both impress the general public with their beauty, but also demonstrate to astronomers around the world the full power of onboard scientific instruments.

The experts will then be able to begin to interpret the data collected using dedicated software, giving the starting signal for a great scientific adventure.

“When I saw the images for the first time (…), I suddenly learned three new things about the Universe that I did not know before,” Dan Coe told AFP. one of the lucky few in the confidence. “It completely blew me away,” said this astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, in charge of James Webb’s operations.

This telescope will “transform our understanding of the Universe”, he testified.

In colour

The first image expected on Monday could be of a deep field, that is, an image taken with a long exposure time to detect the faintest glows, according to a scientific source.

NASA announced on Friday that such a snapshot of the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster would be taken. Acting like a magnifying glass, its particularity is to be able to reveal very distant objects located behind it – an effect called gravitational lensing.

The names of the other cosmic objects observed are just as poetic as they are spellbinding: the Carina Nebula and the Southern Ring (gigantic clouds of gas and dust where stars are formed), and Stephan’s Quintet (a grouping compact of galaxies).

The probably majestic colors that will be revealed in the photographs will not, however, be directly those observed by the telescope.

Light breaks down into different wavelengths, and James Webb works in infrared, which the human eye cannot perceive. Infrared colors will therefore be “translated” into visible colors.

Thanks to these observations in the near and mid-infrared, James Webb will be able to see through impenetrable clouds of dust for his predecessor, the mythical Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990 and still in operation, it does have a small infrared capability, but operates mostly in visible light and ultraviolet.

“Even when Hubble managed to take the image of a distant galaxy, it was not able to distinguish a squirrel from an elephant”, summarized for AFP David Elbaz, French astrophysicist.

“We are going to discover the formation of stars buried in interstellar dust, invisible galaxies, because buried in dust chrysalises”, he was enthusiastic, moved and impatient to discover the images.

Other big differences between the two telescopes: James Webb’s main mirror is almost three times larger than Hubble’s and it evolves much further: 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, against 600 km for Hubble.

Other worlds

Also to be released 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 mainly 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 5,000 have been discovered since 1995, but they remain very mysterious.

The goal is to study their atmosphere to determine if they could turn out to be habitable worlds and conducive to the development of life.

The publication of these first images will mark the official start of the very first cycle of scientific observation of the telescope.

Several hundred observation projects, proposed by researchers from around the world, have already been selected by a committee of specialists for this first year of operation.

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