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‘A time machine’: For Stanford astrophysicists, Webb Telescope’s first images usher in a new era

July 31, 2022, 10:18 p.m.

The release of five historic photos taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured the attention of the public, drawing awe on social media over NASA’s latest advancements and countless reposts of pictures depicting white cluster galaxies, glowing nebulas and the birthplace of a star

But the public isn’t alone. Stanford astrophysics professors are similarly fascinated by the images and are already adapting their own research to prepare for the future cosmic findings.

“We have just been completely blown away at how much more detail we’re learning now,” said astrophysics professor Tom Abel, who has begun analyzing the small, highly-distorted streaks in the backgrounds of the photographs. 

President Joe Biden unveiled the first of five images taken by the James Webb telescope — galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, known as Webb’s First Deep Field — on July 11. The picture displayed a colorful collection of galaxies and its sweeping trails of stars as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The day after, NASA released four additional photos: the mighty star-forming area in the Carina Nebula, which is known as the Cosmic Cliffs for its mountainous resemblance; the gliding galaxy group of Stephan’s Quintet; the luminous brilliance of a white dwarf star known as the Southern Ring Nebula and the thorough atmospheric reports of exoplanet WASP-96b.

These results did not come overnight — the concept for the James Webb Space Telescope took more than 20 years to develop and produce. The telescope launched on the Ariane 5 rocket in December, 2021, and took six months of deployment and commissioning before its photographs were issued in full color.

As more photos and data are released, astrophysicists like Abel at Stanford and other research institutions are embarking on examinations of the recent breakthrough of information. 

“We’re looking at dead stars, new planets being formed, huge galaxies with thousands of other galaxies going around each other. And then millions of stars being born with gas being flung out of them, like jets coming out,” Abel noted. “Over the last 25 years, we’ve been hoping for this.”

Bruce Macintosh, Deputy Director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC), applauded the telescope’s findings. “It’s amazing (though not surprising) that it all came together and has exceeded its goals,” he wrote. 

To capture such high definition images, the James Webb Space Telescope employs an optics design of 18 hexagonal mirrors to intensify the light that radiates from extraordinary distances, according to Macintosh. 

“James Webb Space Telescope looks at a huge range of wavelengths of light, especially infrared light, which is where things like newborn distant galaxies or Earth-sized planets may emit a lot of their light,” Macintosh wrote. “It’s incredibly sensitive.” 

He added that with the telescope’s position in deep space and its temperature at -230º Celsius, it possesses the ability to detect even the smallest and farthest of galaxies.

While there has been widespread admiration for JWST and its discoveries, the project did not come without controversy. The telescope was the first of NASA’s to not be named after a scientist; instead, its title honors Apollo program administrator and political appointee James Webb. During Webb’s time at NASA and as Undersecretary of the State Department during the Truman Administration, he was allegedly involved in discriminatory firings of gay employees, contributing to a 1950s mass dismissal of queer people from government jobs known as the Lavender Scare. 

“I’m honestly not enough of a historian to be completely sure how deep this involvement was, but (like many astronomers) it’s a bit uncomfortable that it doesn’t have a more inspiring name,” Macintosh wrote. 

Nevertheless, on the scientific front, experts say that JWST holds powerful implications for the future of astrophysics and cosmology. Susan Clark, assistant professor of physics and KIPAC member, found the “Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula” image to be especially striking, as it contained a rarely-seen event: the birth of stars.

“One big unsolved problem in astrophysics is star formation. It’s an incredibly complicated process that we don’t fully understand yet,” Clark said. “It’s just beautiful and there’s so much rich physics.”

The cliff-like structures shown in the photo, according to Clark, are edges of a large bubble that had been blown out from extremely hot young stars. 

“Stars and the interstellar medium that they’re born from are linked physically,” she added. “What you’re really seeing is the effect of the newly formed stars on the material that they have recently formed from.”

Risa Wechsler, director of KIPAC, noted that JWST’s features allow it to capture galaxies in a redder wavelength in the near-infrared light and far-infrared light spectrums — beyond the color capabilities of the human eye. As the universe expands, the far away galaxies become redder in color. 

“These are galaxies that in some cases emitted their light 4 billion years ago or 5 billion or even 13 billion years ago,” said Wechsler. “It’s like you have a time machine.”

Though only five images have initially been published by NASA, Stanford astrophysicists say that there’s no shortage of research opportunities ahead.

“There’s all sorts of unbelievable science on the schedule, but it’s also a community full of very creative people who are going to think of new things to do,” Clark said. “That’s the beauty of observational science, like astrophysics.”

Wechsler and her group plan to use the detailed images from JWST to further her department’s understanding of dark matter and how galaxies form, as well as to create theoretical and computational models that will explain what the telescope sees. These models will use the telescope’s photos to reconstruct where the dark matter lies among the galaxies and if the dark matter disturbed the arc-shaped streaks in the photographs.

Wechsler also hinted at an upcoming project from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC): the LSST Camera. From its view on a mountaintop in Chile, the LSST Camera is capable of recording numerous changes that occur in the sky, and may connect with JWST for a closer exploration. “We’re going to discover new high redshift galaxies,” she said, “and then have JWST point at the most interesting places where we think we might have the most to learn.”

Similarly, Macintosh’s team intends to use the information about exoplanet WASP-96b to expand on exoplanet research. Using a technique called “coronagraphy,” they will be able to study the outer parts of other solar systems and cold planets such as Jupiter. 

After the first results from NASA’s latest forage into the universe’s shrouded landscape, Abel said he views the future of the space telescope with optimistic anticipation. 

“It will continue observing now [and] over the next 20 years or so, and we will get this kind of data now every week,” Abel said. “It marks just a tiny beginning and a few lovely examples of the most amazing journey that actually lies ahead.”

Kate Quach is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.

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