The first stunning images from the James Webb Space Telescope were revealed this week, but its journey of cosmic discovery has only just begun.
Here is a look at two early projects that will take advantage of the orbiting observatory’s powerful instruments.
The first stars and galaxies
One of the great promises of the telescope is its ability to study the earliest phase of cosmic history, shortly after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.
The more distant objects are from us, the longer it takes for their light to reach us, and so to gaze back into the distant universe is to look back in the deep past.
“We’re going to look back into that earliest time to see the first galaxies that formed in the history of the universe,” explained Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer Dan Coe, who specializes in the early universe.
Astronomers have so far gone back 97 percent of the way back to the Big Bang, but “we just see these tiny red specks when we look at these galaxies that are so far away.”
“With Webb, we’ll finally be able to see inside these galaxies and see what they’re made of.”
While today’s galaxies are shaped like spirals or ellipticals, the earliest building blocks were “clumpy and irregular,” and Webb should reveal older redder stars in them, more like our Sun, that were invisible to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Coe has two Webb projects coming up—observing one of the most distant galaxies known, MACS0647-JD, which he found in 2013, and Earendel, the most distant star ever detected, which was found in March of this year.
While the public has been enticed by Webb’s stunning pictures, which are shot in infrared because light from the far cosmos has stretched into these wavelengths as the universe expanded, scientists are equally keen on spectroscopy.
Science doesn’t yet know what the earliest stars, which probably started forming 100 million years after the Big Bang, will look like.
“We might see things that are very different,” said Coe—so-called “Population III” stars that are theorized to have been much more massive than our own Sun, and “pristine,” meaning they were made up solely of hydrogen and helium.
These eventually exploded in supernovae, contributing to the cosmic chemical enrichment that created the stars and planets we see today.
Some are doubtful these pristine Population III stars will ever be found—but that won’t stop the astronomical community from trying.
Anyone out there?
Astronomers won time on Webb based on a competitive selection process, open to all regardless of how advanced they are in their careers.
Olivia Lim, a doctoral student at the University of Montreal, is only 25 years old. “I was not even born when people started talking about this telescope,” she told AFP.
Her goal: to observe the roughly Earth-sized rocky planets revolving around a star named Trappist-1. They are so close to each other that from the surface of one, you could see the others appearing clearly in the sky.
“The Trappist-1 system is unique,” explains Lim. “Almost all of the conditions there are favorable for the search for life outside our solar system.”
In addition, three of Trappist-1’s seven planets are in the Goldilocks “habitable zone,” neither too close nor too far from their star, permitting the right temperatures for liquid water to exist on their surface.
The system is “only” 39 light year away—and we can see the planets transit in front of their star.
This makes it possible to observe the drop in luminosity that crossing the star produces, and use spectroscopy to infer planetary properties.
It’s not yet known if these planets have an atmosphere, but that’s what Lim is looking to find out. If so, the light passing through these atmospheres will be “filtered” through the molecules it contains, leaving signatures for Webb.
The jackpot for her would be to detect the presence of water vapor, carbon dioxide and ozone.
Trappist-1 is such a prime target that several other science teams have also been granted time to observe them.
Finding traces of life there, if they exist, will still take time, according to Lim. But “everything we’re doing this year are really important steps to get to that ultimate goal.”
© 2022 AFP
Webb begins hunt for the first stars and habitable worlds (2022, July 14)
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Artemis 1 will help NASA protect astronauts from deep space radiation – Space.com
A motley crew of mannequins and biological experiments will take a deep-space journey further than any human has been before.
The simulated astronauts and various experiments will ride aboard Artemis 1, an uncrewed test flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion spacecraft, following a launch no earlier than Aug. 29. The system will explore the radiation environment near Earth and the moon, including flying in deeper space than the Apollo missions, for more than a month.
Moving outside the protective Van Allen radiation belts near Earth that shield the International Space Station astronauts from cosmic rays will cause an increased risk for future crew members that venture out for lunar missions, scientists said in a livestreamed NASA briefing Wednesday (Aug. 17).
“Understanding this [risk] is very important for successful and sustainable space exploration efforts in deep space,” said Ramona Gaza of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in the briefing.
Gaza is lead of the Matroshka AstroRad Radiation Experiment (MARE) science team, which also includes investigators from DLR (the German space agency). MARE will fly two mannequin torsos (or phantoms) called Helga and Zohar to space fitted with 5,600 sensors to measure radiation; of the two, only Zohar will wear an AstroRad radiation protection vest.
The two “crew members” will be joined by a “moonikin” named after Apollo 13 engineer Arturo Campos. Along with picking up information on acceleration and vibration, Campos has two radiation sensors to see the accumulated exposure a moon mission will bring.
Besides the humanoids, yeast cells will fly on board Artemis 1 to see how living things react to radiation. The BioSentinel cubesat will fly a biology experiment beyond the Earth-moon system for the first time, assessing how yeast cells are affected by space radiation.
“We hope that we can extrapolate our resource to human biology and inform potential countermeasures for future missions,” lead scientist Sergio Santa Maria, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, said of BioSentinel.
Protecting astronauts also comes down to an assessment of the radiation environment. Scientists will continue to study the sun‘s emissions using another cubesat called CubeSat to Study Solar Particles (CuSP). The mission will examine the particles and magnetic fields coming from the sun, also known as the solar wind.
The solar wind not only has relevance to human health in space, but also on Earth; that’s because large space weather events like coronal mass ejections can affect power lines, satellites and other infrastructure vital to human functioning on our planet.
CuSP will be an experiment ahead of possible plans to put fleets of cubesats into deep space to look at solar radiation from multiple angles, said Mihir Desai, CuSP principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.
“It will be, in some sense, a forerunner or pathfinder to a potential constellation of low-cost cubesats that can make measurements in a very cost-effective fashion,” he said.
Russian spacewalk cut short by bad battery in cosmonaut suit – The Indian Express
A Russian spacewalker had to rush back inside the International Space Station on Wednesday when the battery voltage in his spacesuit suddenly dropped. Russian Mission Control ordered Oleg Artemyev, the station commander, to quickly return to the airlock so he could hook his suit to station power. The hatch remained open as his spacewalking partner, Denis Matveev, tidied up outside.NASA said neither man was ever in any danger.
Matveev, in fact, remained outside for another hour or so, before he, too, was ordered to wrap it up. Although Matveev’s suit was fine, Russian Mission Control cut the spacewalk short since flight rules insist on the buddy system. The cosmonauts managed to install cameras on the European Space Agency’s new robot arm before the trouble cropped up, barely two hours into a planned 6 1/2-hour spacewalk.“You know, the start was so excellent,” Matveev said as he made his way back inside, with some of the robot arm installation work left undone.
The 36-foot (11-meter) robot arm arrived at the space station last summer aboard a Russian lab. NASA spacewalks, meanwhile, have been on hold for months. In March, water seeped into a German spacewalker’s helmet. It was not nearly as much leakage as occurred in 2013 when an Italian astronaut almost drowned, but still posed a safety concern. In the earlier case, the water originated from the cooling system in the suit’s undergarments. The spacesuit that malfunctioned in March will be returned to Earth as early as this week in a SpaceX capsule, for further investigation.
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