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Utah astronomers expect a lot of future surprises from NASA’s Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Telescope, first images, Carina Nebula, NASA, July 12, 2022
This image released by NASA on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, shows the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera on the James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA.

The James Webb Space Telescope is already surpassing expectations as the universe’s most powerful observation tool.

After months of anticipation following its launch and an intricate unfurling process, NASA released the telescope’s first images, revealing “the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date.”

Utah played a significant role in the telescope’s design and construction, and scientists here will also be involved in using its revolutionary technology to uncover more of the universe’s mysteries.

For Zheng Zheng, an astronomer at the University of Utah, the first images have already ushered in a new era of astronomy.

“This is just the beginning,” he said. “We're expecting a lot of surprises in the future. We never expected Hubble to be so amazing. JWST will be even more amazing.”

Scientists like Zheng hope the telescope can help answer some of the most persistent questions about the universe — such as how it began and evolved — as well as raise other questions astronomers never thought to ask and perhaps even discover life on distant planets.

Zheng, along with his colleague, Anil Seth, will be among the first in the world to use JWST. Zheng and Seth are on separate research teams that will participate in the first round of observation time.

Zheng is studying an era of the early universe known as the “reionization” period — a critical but still mysterious phase that occurred long, long ago and spanned more than a billion years. His team will analyze the telescope’s data to construct models that can test various theories on how this period began.

He’ll look back in time to see how many galaxies were present at this early stage and what kinds of physical properties they have.

While the images Webb has created are beautiful, “like works of art” Zheng said, the underlying data the telescope can gather is even more impressive. It allows scientists to spread out light into different wavelengths and study what kinds of elements are present.

“The images make us already very excited,” he said. “But there's another dimension.”

The striking first images coming back from the telescope have put to rest fears that something might go wrong on the $10 billion project’s journey nearly a million miles into space. At a live-streamed NASA panel Tuesday, which held in-person viewings at several locations in Utah and around the country, scientists called the resolution and detail in the images “absolutely astonishing.”

“I'm not surprised that Webb is capable of this,” said Knicole Colon, an astrophysicist with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. “But it's still a pleasant surprise to see just how beautiful it works right out of the box.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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