JWST Big Reveal Begins at White House As Biden Touts U.S. Prowess, International Cooperation

JWST Big Reveal Begins at White House As Biden Touts U.S. Prowess, International Cooperation

The first science-quality image from the James Webb Space Telescope was revealed by President Joe Biden at the White House today. More will follow tomorrow during briefings at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, but this one certainly met NASA’s goal of getting a “wow” reaction. The stunning image shows galaxies that formed 13 billion years ago as magnified by galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, a natural gravitational lens. After years of delays and billions in overruns, the U.S.-European-Canadian space telescope is finally showing what it can do.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who chairs the White House National Space Council, gushed over not just the image itself, but what it represents for U.S. scientific capabilities and international cooperation.

This deep field is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours. It shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The mass of the cluster acts as a gravitational lens magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it. NIRCam brought those distant galaxies into sharp focus – they have tiny, faint structures never been seen before, including star clusters and diffuse features. MIRI highlighted where the dust it. NIRSpec observed 48 individual galaxies at the same time – a new technology used for the first time in space. NIRISS captured spectra of all the objects in the field of view at once. This slice of the universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI.

The image is of the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The universe is 13.8 billion years old. The mass of the cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying more distant/older galaxies behind it. The image is of a tiny speck in the sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length, but contains thousands of galaxies.

The full resolution (28.51 MB) image with more details on what it shows is posted here.

John Mather, Project Scientist for JWST, faces the James Webb Space Telescope primary mirror, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, May 4, 2016. Credit: NASA

Nobelist John Mather, JWST Senior Project Scientist at NASA/Goddard who is often credited as the “father” of JWST, said in a statement that the telescope “survived all the hazards to be our golden eye in the sky.”

“What happened after the big bang? How did the expanding universe cool down and make black holes and galaxies and stars and planets and people? Astronomers see everything twice: first with pictures, and then with imagination and calculation. But there’s something out there that we’ve never imagined, and I will be as amazed as you are when we find it.”

Mather was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics for precise measurements of the cosmic microwave backgound using another groundbreaking NASA spacecraft, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE).

JWST undoubtedly will revolutionize humanity’s understanding of the universe during its expected 20 years of operations, but its significance is more than just science.

As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today, JWST “was made possible by human ingenuity – the incredible NASA Webb team and our international partners at the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Webb is just the start of what we can accomplish in the future when we work together for the benefit of humanity.”

Harris and Biden also praised its international character. JWST “is an example of how a scientific endeavor can build upon the international rules and norms that govern our cooperation in space,” Harris said. Biden added that JWST “embodies how America leads the world not just by the example of our power, but the power of our example.”

President Joe Biden speaking at the release of the first full-color image from the James Webb Space Telescope at the White House, June 11, 2022. Screengrab.

Biden also used the opportunity to call for more investment in science and technology here at home.

“A partnership with others, it symbolizes the relentless spirit of American ingenuity. … These images are going to remind the world that America can do big things and remind the American people, especially our children, that there’s nothing beyond our capacity. … We can see possibilities no one has ever seen before.  We can go places no one has ever gone before. You know you’ve heard me say over and over again — America is defined by one single word, possibilities.”

JWST cost $10 billion, of which $9 billion came from U.S. taxpayers over a tumultous two decades of schedule delays and cost overruns. Congress imposed a cost cap of $8 billion after a substantial overrun in 2010, only for NASA and prime contractor Northrop Grumman to have to come back in 2018 explaining why they needed more.

Congress went along and today there was no sign of regret. The bipartisan leadership of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee joined in praising the telescope, the team, and the image as a taste of what’s to come.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, tweeted her support.

The 6.5-meter diameter telescope with its gold-plated 18-segment primary mirror, a secondary mirror, and four scientific instruments was launched on December 25. After a month-long journey to the Sun-Earth Lagrange point-2 (SEL-2) a million miles from Earth during which it successfully completed a nerve-racking deployment sequence, JWST has spent the last five months getting ready for this day. The mirrors had to be aligned and the instruments chilled to their super-cold operating temperatures.

Illustration of how the James Webb Space Telescope should look in its fully deployed configuration at the Sun-Earth Lagrange point-2 (SEL-2) with its 18-segment gold-plated primary mirror and other structures. There are no cameras out there to provide an actual photo. Credit: NASA

The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) provided jointly by NASA and the European Consortium (led by the U.K.) with ESA must be kept at 7 Kelvin (-447°F/-266°C). The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) provided by the University of Arizona, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) provided by ESA, and Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS) provided by CSA operate at 40 K (-387°F/-233°C).

Today’s image was taken by NIRCam, designed and built by Lockheed Martin with the University of Arizona. Spectra and images from the other instruments are expected to be highlighted tomorrow as NASA, ESA and CSA showcase JWST’s capabilities.

ESA not only provided NIRSpec and participated in MIRI, but launched JWST on its Ariane 5 rocket at no cost to NASA as part of the partnership agreement. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher tweeted that it’s an honor to be part of the project.

The Canadian Space Agency provided the FGS/NIRISS instrument and called today a “special moment.”

JWST is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD, which also operates the Hubble Space Telescope. STScI is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under contract to NASA/Goddard.  Northrop Grumman not only was the prime contractor, but built the cryocooler that keeps MIRI at its cryogenic temperature barely above absolute zero enabling it to detect extremely faint infrared signals.

More images will released tomorrow morning.

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