What will Australians see with Webb?
Aussie astronomers available for interviews in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra.
They’re using Webb to look for the first stars, the first galaxies, baby planets, massive black holes.
Over the past 30 years, Hubble has transformed science and culture, revealing a Universe of 200 billion galaxies. Webb will see further, solving today’s mysteries and creating new ones.
On Tuesday morning Joe Biden will release ‘the first picture’ then NASA will release a suite of images early Wednesday morning from the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble.
Nearly 40 researchers across Australia are eagerly awaiting data from web for their projects. Many of them are available to talk on Tuesday about what they hope to see with Webb and about their reaction to the first pictures.
Much of the Webb data is flowing back to Earth through Tidbinbilla, and some comes from an instrument designed by Peter Tuthill at the University of Sydney. He is relieved and excited. “This is a day I have been looking forward to for a big part of my career. Everything about the Webb is so over-the-top audacious – from the titanic articulated mirror down to its orbit out in the cold voids of interplanetary space.”
“This entire huge, complicated machine flew out and everything seems to have unfolded and deployed like clockwork.”
The first stars and galaxies
“Hubble took my favourite astronomical image of all time: the Hubble Ultra Deep Field,” says Elisabete da Cunha at UWA and ASTRO 3D in Perth. “It was taken by pointing Hubble to a dark patch of sky) and just collecting photons for about 10 days. That tiny dark patch of sky reveals over ten thousand distant galaxies. This completely revolutionized our view of the Universe: there are many more galaxies than we imagined”
We will be able to observe even more distant galaxies than with the Hubble — in fact, we expect to observe the very first galaxies that lit up the Universe!
“Webb will allow us to view the birth of stars within the hearts of the densest, dust-enshrouded cores of molecular clouds,” says Kathryn Grasha from ANU and ASTRO 3D. “The “unknown unknowns” are the most exciting prospect for the next decade. And the breathtaking views of the Universe are guaranteed to ignite the excitement and imagination of the public and inspire the next generation of astronomers,” she says.
“Webb’s primary mission will be to witness the birth of the first stars and galaxies in the early Universe,” says Melbourne’s Karl Glazebrook, from Swinburne University and ASTRO 3D. “The first billion years of cosmic history has barely been explored. We don’t know when or how the first stars formed. This is a complex question as stars produce heavy elements when they die.
All current star formation we can observe, such as in the Milky Way, is from enriched interstellar gas. We haven’t yet seen how stars form in pristine gas, which is without any heavy elements – as such a state hasn’t existed for more than 13 billion years,” he says.
Hubble showed us the brightest ancient galaxies,” says Nicha Leethochawalit an ASTRO 3D researcher at the University of Melbourne. In fact, there are a lot more low-mass or ‘mediocre’ galaxies than massive and bright ones. Webb will help us work out the distribution of mass (or light) among galaxies, a bit like wealth distribution in nations..
“Among the first images will be of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, one of the most massive objects in the Universe,” says Kim-Vy Tran, a UNSW and ASTRO 3D astrophysicist. “This galaxy cluster bends light from objects at the edge of our observable horizon and may reveal how the very first galaxies form.”
“I’m looking for faint whispers and motes of light that betray the presence of planets nestled up against the overwhelming glare of the host star,” says Tuthill.
“I used Hubble to find brown dwarfs – halfway between suns and planets,” says Benjamin Pope from the University of Queensland. “Now we can look for much smaller planets with Webb to help us understand how Earth and the Solar System formed.”
I hope to see baby planets being born. Are they born hot or cold?” says Christophe Pinte, Monash University, Melbourne.
“I’m interested in stars born in pairs, that have influence over each other for life, a bit like married couples,” says Orsola De Marco from Macquarie University. “They create stunning planetary nebulae. One NASA’s first photos will be of nebula NGC3132.”
“We’re hoping to use the Webb to find out how feeding black holes launch powerful beams of outflowing matter and energy known as jets,” says James Miller-Jones at Curtin University/ICRAR in Perth. “Jets from the most massive black holes can affect the evolution of entire galaxies.”
“As a teenager, I was awed by Hubble’s powerful images of the cosmos,” he says. “The day I received the first Hubble data for one of my own science programs was extremely exciting. I hope that the Webb will similarly inspire the next generation of scientists in Australia and around the world.”
The James Webb Space Telescope
30 years in development. Delayed by a decade. Now in orbit 1.5 million km from Earth. It has a 6.5 metre gold coated mirror made of 18 hexagonal segments, each aligned to 25 millionths of a millimetre. It is cold, about -233℃, and protected from the Sun by a 20-metre-wide sunshield.
Issued by ASTRO 3D, the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions, on behalf of Australian Webb users.
Expanded comments from these and other researchers are available.