Short update: First James Webb photos look great… and so do the predictions!
More evidence for very early galaxy formation, and there's lots of water in the atmosphere of a marvellously extreme exoplanet
Well, as you obviously know by now, the James Webb Space Telescope unveiled its first photographs (and spectra) on July 12th 2022. My daughter Sophie and I took my laptop to Sankt Oberholz (excellent local café and co-working space), to have a celebratory lemonade as we watched NASA reveal the images, live. It was surprisingly thrilling! I haven’t been this excited by an astronomy press conference/live broadcast since the Curiosity rover first scampered around Gale Crater on Mars.
I should probably make it clear, all of the thrill came from the photos: NASA’s attempt to make it into a Thrilling And Glamorous Global Media Event was a charming and often hilarious debacle. I particularly enjoyed the portions of the official NASA broadcast where – having successfully received high-resolution images of the far side of the universe, from four times further away than the moon – they couldn’t put through a local Zoom call to the colleague who could explain the picture. If you were a fan of awkward moments, this was truly heaven.
IF THE GOVERNMENT RAN THE OSCARS
For those of you who missed it: imagine if the Oscars were scripted, presented, organised, and broadcast by very sweet, extremely nervous, government bureaucrats whose greatest fear is public speaking. And everything went wrong. I (and yes, this does not reflect well on me) laughed like I was watching the Marx Brothers wrestle a piano into an occupied toilet cubicle. My daughter, on the other hand, who is a far nicer person than me, and has more empathy than anyone I know, was completely doubled up with second-hand embarrassment watching it. I mean, in agony. She kept turning away from the screen, putting her fingers in her ears, and saying “Just tell me when the next photo comes up.”
I hope the NASA presenters all get medals, because the whole experience must have taken years off their lives. NASA, don’t put them through that again. If you’re going to do a global telecast for a general audience, hire a standup comedian with a degree in astronomy to present (and to protect the nervous astronomers, and to fill in the awkward gaps). There’s got to be one. Or just pay Chris Rock to get an astronomy degree. Do whatever it takes.
Anyway, the photos! The photos were thrilling. Here’s one:
And I’ve examined the high resolution versions in more detail since, and THEY ARE EVEN MORE THRILLING. Go look at them, and really zoom in. There has never been anything like this before.
Check them out. These are the pages, from the telescope’s own website, hosting the highest resolution versions (you can download them as a giant TIF, a giant PNG, or a smaller PNG).
Here are some galaxies from back when the universe was a toddler.
Here are stars forming in the Cosmic Cliffs region of the Carina Nebula.
Here are five galaxies dancing. (OK, four are dancing, and one is photobombing, but whatever).
Here’s a white dwarf star surrounded by layers of its old self, from when it was a red giant.
And here’s the atmospheric spectrum of a big, hot, gassy planet; less visually spectacular, but what an astonishing technical achievement.
WAS THAT EXCITING OR WHAT?
EXTREMELY EXCITING, but I didn’t want to post a nuclear-hot take that I might have to throw cold water on a few days later, when more information came in.
So, I waited a week or two, until there had been some fuller analysis of the photos. In particular, I wanted to know how old the smallest, oldest galaxies were in the first photo, and that meant waiting until NASA, and the other researchers around the world analysing the data, had worked out the redshift for each individual galaxy. (By oldest, I basically mean youngest, of course, because the further away they are from us in time, the closer they are to the birth of the universe, as I have discussed earlier – but you get what I mean.)
So how are the predictions doing?
THIS IS HOW THE PREDICTIONS ARE DOING
It's looking good so far!
Now that astronomers have analysed the data from that first deep field photo – the one with all the tiny, ancient/newborn galaxies in it – they know roughly how old each of them were at the point in time we’ve photographed them. Aaaaaand… yep, one of them is the oldest/youngest galaxy we’ve ever seen: the light we are looking at in that photo is 13.5 billion years old. Which means it’s from just 300 million years after the Big Bang.
That pushes the date of the earliest galaxy ever seen back another 100 million years from the previous record holder, which is great for my prediction of extremely early galaxy formation. Plus, its spectrum seems to contain a lot of oxygen (also great for my prediction).
Oh, and that previous record holder, dislodged last week, was only spotted in 2016, by the Hubble space telescope (looking back as far as the Hubble could go). And it was about 100 million years closer to the Big Bang than the record holder before it. That means we have pushed the frontier of knowledge 200 million years closer to the Big Bang in the past six years. So far, we see galaxies all the way back. And there are only 300 million years left. Yes, looking good for my prediction.
My other big prediction was about life on other planets, and possible biosignatures in their atmospheres.
I predicted that water would be unexpectedly common in the atmospheres of exoplanets of all kinds, not just small rocky planets like earth. Sure enough, the spectrum of the atmosphere of the hot Jupiter that they analysed was full of unexpectedly high amounts of water vapour. (“Hot Jupiter” is just shorthand for any giant gassy planet that orbits extremely close to its star.) This planet is larger than Jupiter (though it only weighs half as much), and orbits incredibly close to its star – almost ten times closer than Mercury is to our sun. (It is so close, and orbiting so fast, that a year on the poetically named WASP-96 b lasts three and a half days. This means that advanced civilisations cannot exist there, as birthday celebrations, Christmas presents, and annual car insurance renewals, would immediately bankrupt everyone.)
So these first photos have provided some initial intriguing evidence in favour of these predictions, and none against.
Of course, these are very early days, and far, far more data from the James Webb telescope will be needed before I would expect mainstream faith in the current paradigm to waver. (Which is fair enough. As Carl Sagan famously put it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.)
In particular, we need to see data from even closer to the Big Bang. And that will take a while, because it requires much longer exposure times, as that light is so dim and redshifted.
But we are certainly off to a good start! Fingers and toes crossed.
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Unrelated to the article, but wondered on your thoughts about Nasa/Dart crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid. To me, it seems like trying to alter the course of a bus doing 70mph by throwing a mosquito at it, but then I'm sure they understand the math better than I do. I'm reminded of that line from Fight Club, "the illusion of safety"...