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Universe Today

Neptune and its rings glow in Webb Telescope’s portrait

The first picture of Neptune to be taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals the latest, greatest details of the ice giant’s atmosphere, moon and rings in infrared wavelengths.

Some of those details — for example, faint bands of dust that encircle Neptune — haven’t been brought to light since the Voyager 2 probe zoomed past in 1989.

“It has been three decades since we last saw those faint, dusty bands, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” astronomer Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist on the JWST team who specializes in Neptune, said today in a news release. Neptune’s brighter rings stand out even more clearly.

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Cosmic Space

Webb Telescope captures its first photo of alien planet

NASA has released the first direct image of an exoplanet taken by the James Webb Space Telescope — and although there’s no chance that this particular alien world could harbor life as we know it, the picture serves as an early demonstration of the observatory’s power.

“We’ve only just begun,” Aarynn Carter, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz who led the analysis of the JWST image, said today in a NASA image advisory. “There are many more images of exoplanets to come that will shape our overall understanding of their physics, chemistry and formation.”

The planet in question, HIP 65426 b, is about 355 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus. Discovered five years ago, it’s a gas giant that’s roughly seven times as massive as Jupiter — and it’s about 100 times farther out from its parent star than Earth is from the sun.

That extreme distance from a dwarf star would make HIP 65426 b a prohibitively chilly ball of gas. But the distance also provides enough separation for JWST to distinguish the planet from the star.

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Universe Today

Webb Telescope sees Jupiter and auroras in a new light

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is designed to probe the farthest frontiers of the universe, but newly released images of Jupiter prove that the observatory can also bring fresh perspectives to more familiar celestial sights.

The infrared images reveal Jupiter’s polar auroras and its faint rings as well as two of its moons — plus galaxies in the far background. The planet’s Great Red Spot is there as well, but because it’s seen through three of JWST’s specialized filters, it looks white rather than red.

JWST’s new perspective should give scientists a better sense of how the complex Jupiter system is put together.

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GeekWire

Feast your eyes on Webb Telescope’s space smorgasbord

A day after NASA showed how far the James Webb Space Telescope could dive into the cosmic frontier, scientists released additional pictures demonstrating the observatory’s scientific breadth.

Today’s data release highlighted the $10 billion telescope’s ability to analyze planetary atmospheres and record scenes of stellar birth and death in unprecedented detail.

The infrared images also demonstrated that the Webb Space Telescope’s 21-foot-wide mirror is ready to provide sharp pictures from the very start. That comes in contrast to the Hubble Space Telescope’s debut in 1990, when the initial images were marred by a flaw in its 7.8-foot-wide mirror.

“This telescope is working fantastically well,” Mark McCaughrean, the European Space Agency’s senior adviser for science and exploration, said today during NASA’s Webb webcast. That raises hopes that the James Webb Space Telescope, also known as JWST, will deliver on its promise to revolutionize the study of phenomena ranging from the origins of the universe to the habitability of alien planets.

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GeekWire

Webb Telescope’s first image unveiled at White House

President Joe Biden got in on today’s celebration of the first full-color image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion observatory that’s been decades in the making. But the star of the show was the image itself, billed as the deepest and sharpest infrared view of the universe to date.

The picture shows a patch of sky where the gravitational effect of a massive galaxy cluster in the foreground, known as SMACS 0723, focuses the light rays emanating from far more distant galaxies in the background.

“This telescope embodies how America leads the world, not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” Biden said during today’s White House ceremony. “These images are going to remind the world that America can do big things, and remind the American people — especially our children — that there’s nothing beyond our capacity.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted that the light from some of the galaxies shown in Webb’s First Deep Field “has been traveling for over 13 billion years.”

And that’s just the start: Astronomers say future images from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, are likely to exceed the distance record set today, and expand other space frontiers as well.

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GeekWire

Webb Telescope reaches its final destination

The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope successfully fired its thrusters today to put it in position at the destination where it’s expected to probe the mysteries of the universe for years to come.

The nearly five-minute firing at 11 a.m. PT sent JWST into its prescribed orbit around a balance point known as L2, a million miles beyond Earth. It’s a point where the gravitational pulls of the sun and the Earth align to keep spacecraft in a relatively stable position, minimizing the need for course corrections.

Today’s maneuver came 30 days after the telescope’s Christmas launch from the European Arianespace consortium’s spaceport in French Guiana. NASA is playing the lead role in the project, in partnership with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

“Webb, welcome home!” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work ensuring Webb’s safe arrival at L2 today. We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!”

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GeekWire

Astronomers rejoice after Webb Telescope unfolds mirror

Two weeks after its Christmas launch, the James Webb Space Telescope finished unwrapping itself today, delighting astronomers in the process.

The deployment of JWST’s 18-segment, 21.3-foot-wide primary mirror marked the end of the riskiest portion of the $10 billion telescope’s mission.

It’s still more than 300,000 miles from its destination, a gravitational balance point known as L2 that’s a million miles from Earth. It still has to fine-tune the orientation of the mirror’s gold-and-beryllium segments, and cool its instruments down to a temperature just a few degrees above absolute zero. But mission controllers at the Space Telescope Science Institute were able to tick off nearly 300 potential points of failure without a hitch.

“We have a fully deployed JWST observatory,” Northrop Grumman’s Paul Reynolds, who led the mission’s deployment operations team, declared during a widely watched webcast.

JWST is designed to be 100 times more sensitive than the 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, which is near the end of its longer-than-expected life. Once JWST begins science operations, as early as May, it should bring new revelations about mysteries ranging from the habitability of alien planets, to the nature of black holes and quasars, to the origins of the universe.

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GeekWire

Webb space telescope’s launch makes Christmas merry

The most expensive telescope in the known universe has begun its journey to a vantage point a million miles from Earth with its launch from French Guiana.

Today’s liftoff of an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Space Agency’s South American spaceport, coming at 9:20 a.m. local time (4:20 a.m. PT), was just the first step of what’s expected to be a monthlong trip for NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

“Everything fell together on this Christmas Day to send a new present to the world’s astronomers,” NASA launch commentator Rob Navias said.

Flight controllers broke into applause when the telescope separated from the Ariane 5’s second stage. “Go Webb!” range operations manager Jean-Luc Voyer cried.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted that the James Webb Space Telescope is designed to look back to an age when the first stars and galaxies formed, more than 13.5 billion years ago.

“It’s a time machine,” Nelson said. “It’s going to take us back to the very beginnings of the universe. We are going to discover incredible things that we never imagined.”

JWST is due to settle into a region of space known as the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2, or L2, where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the sun align to help keep spacecraft in a stable position within Earth’s shadow. Along the way, the telescope will have to unfurl its sunshield and its segmented mirror in a process that’s said to have 344 potential single points of failure.

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GeekWire

High hopes are riding on space telescope’s risky launch

The launch of NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope from French Guiana could mark a triumph in a tale that thousands of astronomers have been following for a generation. Or it could result in the deepest tragedy.

Either way, the climax is due to unfold beginning on Christmas morning — making for a plot worthy of a holiday movie.

“I’ve been waiting 23 years for this telescope to launch,” University of Washington astronomer Eric Agol told GeekWire.

Agol has been waiting so long that the focus of his research changed completely during the wait. Back in 1998, when the Next-Generation Space Telescope was still on the drawing boards, he was studying gravitationally lensed quasars.

“I was doing some science at the time with ground-based telescopes and, and specifically the Keck Telescope up in Hawaii,” Agol said. “We were spending half a night looking at distant quasars, and then we calculated that with the James Webb Space Telescope, it would take a few milliseconds to do the same observation.”

Now he’s studying planets beyond our own solar system — with an intense focus on TRAPPIST-1, a potentially habitable planetary system 39 light-years from Earth. It’s a testament to the telescope’s versatility that it promises to have just as dramatic effect on that project.

“James Webb is just going to give phenomenal data on this system of transiting planets,” Agol said. “Each of the transits will yield spectral information if there are any signs of atmospheres in these planets. This is the first time where we have a really good chance of probing atmospheres on potentially Earthlike planets.”

But first, the telescope has to get settled at its location in deep space, a million miles from Earth, at a gravitational balance point known as Sun-Earth L2.

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Cosmic Science

Supersonic flight and suborbital science feel the boom

Boom Supersonic attracts a big-name customer, Virgin Galactic signs up another researcher for a suborbital spaceflight, and new questions are raised about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Get the details on the Web:

United boosts Boom Supersonic

United Airlines says it’s agreed to buy 15 of Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound jets once they come onto the market. Colorado-based Boom is gearing up to start flight testing for a subscale prototype of its Overture jet, known as the XB-1. Those tests are slated to open the way for the Overture’s rollout in 2025, first flight in 2026 and the start of commercial air service at speeds of up to Mach 1.7 by 2029. That could cut Seattle-to-Tokyo travel time from 8.5 hours to 4.5 hours.

The deal makes United the first U.S. airline to sign a purchase agreement with Boom, providing a significant boost to the startup. Boom says it now has purchase agreements and options for 70 Overture jets in its order book. But wait, there’s more: The jets will be designed to use a type of sustainable aviation fuel that’s meant to allow for flight operations with net-zero carbon emissions.

Virgin Galactic signs up science star

Virgin Galactic is reserving a suborbital spaceflight on VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, for bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi. During her flight, the timing of which hasn’t yet been set, Gerardi will support a bio-monitoring experiment drawn up by Carré Technologies Inc. (Hexoskin) with the support of the Canadian Space Agency, as well as a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.

Gerardi, who’s affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, is also known for TikTok videos and Instagram postings that explore the intersection of her career and her personal life. She joins planetary scientist Alan Stern in holding a reservation for a dedicated research flight on Virgin Galactic. Last month, the company conducted its first 50-mile-high, rocket-powered flight test from its home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Commercial service could begin within the coming year.

The latest buzz on the Webb Telescope

NASA is fine-tuning the schedule for this year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, widely seen as the successor to the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The space agency had been targeting Oct. 31 for launch of the $10 billion observatory from French Guiana, using a European Ariane 5 rocket. But logistical complications are leading NASA to look at launch dates in November or early December.

Another complication has to do with the telescope’s name: NASA’s Paul Hertz is reported as saying at this week’s meeting of a space science advisory committee that the space agency is reviewing the historical record surrounding James Webb, the late NASA administrator after whom the telescope is named. A petition circulating among astronomers has called for a new name because of claims that Webb acquiesced to homophobic policies during the 1950s and 1960s.