The powerful James Webb space telescope unveils its first images: is life hiding somewhere in the Universe?

The powerful James Webb space telescope unveils its first images: is life hiding somewhere in the Universe?


the essential
This Tuesday, July 12, NASA will unveil the first images of the brand new James Webb Space Telescope. This is an extraordinary step forward for the scientific world, which is finally seeing the first results of many years of work. The observations will quickly move towards a small stellar system: TRAPPIST-1 to, perhaps, consider discovering life in the Universe.

That’s it ! The first images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) arrive this Tuesday, July 12. Images that will amaze enthusiasts as their precision is revolutionary. This is an event that astronomers around the world have been waiting for for several years.

What will be these first images delivered by the famous successor to the Hubble telescope? A galaxy? A cloud of cosmic dust? Distant planets? The target has not yet been revealed by NASA and the bets are on by the researchers.

James Webb’s first shot probably won’t show anything new, but it will demonstrate the power of the telescope. It has a huge mirror 6 meters in diameter, where that of its big brother Hubble was only 2.4 meters. The goal will be to show the most spectacular images possible because according to Jérémy Leconte, researcher at the University of Bordeaux “NASA has invested a lot of money in this project, the general public must also be there”.

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A long-term job

The JWST was launched into space on December 25 by an Arianne 5 rocket from the Kourou space center in French Guiana. The telescope then headed for an observation point 1.5 million kilometers from the earth, it reached it on January 24. A particularly successful trip, which will allow James Webb to remain under observation for 20 years instead of the five years initially announced.

The James Webb Telescope observes in the infrared domain thanks to very powerful cameras, and directly from space. He will then be able to go far back in the past of the Universe, shortly after the Big Bang, to see the first galaxies in formation.

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James Webb in search of life

A small part of the sky is of particular interest to this new telescope. In the constellation of Aquarius is a red dwarf named TRAPPIST-1 around which orbit seven exoplanets (planets that do not orbit the sun). “This system has the particularity of being very close to us, only 40 light years away, which on the scale of the galaxy is minimal” explains Michael Gillon, researcher at the University of Liège who, with his team, has discovered TRAPPIST-1 seven years ago.

Three to four planets of this system are in the “habitable zone of the star” which means that water in a liquid state could potentially develop. “This system has established itself as the best target for James Webb, with regard to research on exoplanets, it is even the main target” adds the astrophysicist. In fact, 25% of JWST’s time was dedicated to the study of exoplanets and 11% of that time reserved specifically for TRAPPIST-1.

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The main mission of the James Webb telescope will be to analyze the presence or not of an atmosphere on the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system. “We hope that at the end of the first cycle of observation (from now until the end of 2023) we will have the first answers to our questions” specifies the scientist. The presence of an atmosphere is essential for life to develop on a planet. If one or more planets do have an atmosphere, the JWST will analyze their composition.

The results aren’t there yet, but the scientific world is reeling from this great leap forward and the hope of answering some of humanity’s biggest questions lies in the images and data provided by this brand new telescope.

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