The JWST is Re-Writing Astronomy Textbooks

The first JWST Deep Field Image, showing large distant galaxies. The telescope's observations are revealing the previously unseen and are forcing a re-write of astronomy textbooks. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

When the James Webb Space Telescope was launched at the end of 2021, we expected stunning images and illuminating scientific results. So far, the powerful space telescope has lived up to our expectations. The JWST has shown us things about the early Universe we never anticipated.

Some of those results are forcing a rewrite of astronomy textbooks.

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Feast Your Eyes on 19 Face-On Spiral Galaxies Seen by Webb

These Webb images are part of a large, long-standing project, the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS (PHANGS) program, which is supported by more than 150 astronomers worldwide. Before Webb took these images, PHANGS was already brimming with data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope’s Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, including observations in ultraviolet, visible, and radio light. Webb’s near- and mid-infrared contributions have provided several new puzzle pieces. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA

If you’re fascinated by Nature, these images of spiral galaxies won’t help you escape your fascination.

These images show incredible detail in 19 spirals, imaged face-on by the JWST. The galactic arms with their multitudes of stars are lit up in infrared light, as are the dense galactic cores, where supermassive black holes reside.

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A Solo Brown Dwarf Found With Auroras

This artist concept portrays the brown dwarf W1935, which is located 47 light-years from Earth. Astronomers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope found infrared emission from methane coming from W1935, generating an aurora, a very unexpected discovery. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

Astronomers have used JWST to find a brown dwarf with polar auroras like the Earth, or Jupiter. This is surprising because the brown dwarf, dubbed W1935, is a free-floating object, meaning it isn’t part of another star system. Therefore, there’s no solar wind available to generate any Northern Lights. Instead, the auroras are seemingly generated from methane emissions in the planet’s atmosphere, interacting with the interstellar plasma. Another theory is that it perhaps has an active but unseen moon contributing to the emissions.

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Why Was it Tricky to Know the Distances to Galaxies JWST Was Seeing?

Obtaining accurate redshift measurements is a challenge, even with telescopes like Webb. Credit: NASA

One of the chief objectives of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is to study the formation and evolution of the earliest galaxies in the Universe, which emerged more than 13 billion years ago. To this end, scientists must identify galaxies from different cosmological epochs to explore how their properties have changed over time. This, in turn, requires precise dating techniques so astronomers are able to determine when (in the history of the Universe) an observed galaxy existed. The key is to measure the object’s redshift, which indicates how long its light has been traveling through space.

This is the purpose of the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), a collaborative research group that analyzes Webb data to learn more about galactic evolution. These galaxies are known as “high-redshift,” meaning that their light emissions are redshifted all the way into the infrared spectrum. Galaxies that existed ca. 13 billion years ago can only be observed in the near-infrared spectrum, which is now possible thanks to Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). Even so, obtaining accurate redshift measurements from such distant galaxies is a very tricky, and requires advanced techniques.

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JWST Observes the Kuiper Belt: Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar

Artist's conception of Sedna, the TNO that orbits in the outer edges of the Solar System. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Kuiper Belt, the vast region at the edge of our Solar System populated by countless icy objects, is a treasure trove of scientific discoveries. The detection and characterization of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), sometimes referred to as Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), has led to a new understanding of the history of the Solar System. The disposition of KBOs is an indicator of gravitational currents that have shaped the Solar System and reveal a dynamic history of planetary migrations. Since the late 20th century, scientists have been eager to get a closer look at KBOs to learn more about their orbits and composition.

Studying bodies in the outer Solar System is one of the many objectives of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Using data obtained by Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec), an international team of astronomers observed three dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt: Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar. These observations revealed several interesting things about their respective orbits and composition, including light hydrocarbons and complex organic molecules believed to be the product of methane irradiation.

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Why Build Megastructures? Just Move Planets Around to Make Habitable Worlds

An artist view of countless exoplanets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 1960, Freeman Dyson proposed how advanced civilizations could create megastructures that enclosed their star, allowing them to harness all of their star’s energy and multiplying the habitable space they could occupy. In 2015, the astronomical community was intrigued when the star KIC 8462852 (aka. Tabby’s Star) began experiencing unexplained changes in brightness, leading some to speculate that the variations might be due to a megastructure. While the final analysis of the star’s light curve in 2018 revealed that the dimming pattern was more characteristic of dust than a solid structure, Tabby’s Star focused attention on the subject of megastructures and their associated technosignatures.

Dyson’s ideas were proposed at a time when astronomers were unaware of the abundance of exoplanets in our galaxy. The first confirmed exoplanet was not discovered until 1992, and that number has now reached 5,514! With this in mind, a team of researchers from Bangalore, India, recently released a paper that presents an alternative to the whole megastructure concept. For advanced civilizations looking for more room to expand, taking planets within their system – or capturing free-floating planets (FFP) beyond – and transferring them into the star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ) is a much simpler and less destructive solution.

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We Should Be Looking for Small, Hot Dyson Spheres

A Type II civilization is one that can directly harvest the energy of its star using a Dyson Sphere or something similar. Credit: Fraser Cain (with Midjourney)

In 1960, legendary physicist Freeman Dyson published his seminal paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation,” wherein he proposed that there could be extraterrestrial civilizations so advanced that they could build megastructures large enough to enclose their parent star. He also indicated that these “Dyson Spheres,” as they came to be known, could be detected based on the “waste heat” they emitted at mid-infrared wavelengths. To this day, infrared signatures are considered a viable technosignature in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

So far, efforts to detect Dyson Spheres (and variation thereof) by their “waste heat” signatures have come up empty, leading some scientists to recommend tweaking the search parameters. In a new paper, astronomy and astrophysics Professor Jason T. Wright of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds and the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSTI) recommends that SETI researchers refine the search by looking for indications of activity. In other words, he recommends looking for Dyson Spheres based on what they could be used for rather than just heat signatures.

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The Suspense is Killing Us. The Next Planet in the TRAPPIST System Gets the JWST Treatment

This artist' concept shows what the hot rocky exoplanet TRAPPIST-1 c could look like based on observations by the James Webb Space Telescope. TRAPPIST-1 c, the second of seven known planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, orbits its star at a distance of 0.016 AU (about 1.5 million miles), completing one circuit in just 2.42 Earth-days. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

The TRAPPIST-1 system is easily the most exciting collection of exoplanets ever discovered by astronomers. The system contains seven rocky planets orbiting an ultracool red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. Several of the planets are in the star’s habitable zone.

With the James Webb Space Telescope’s ability to detect and study the atmospheres of distant planets orbiting other stars, data on the TRAPPIST planets have been highly anticipated. Astronomers have now released detailed information about the second planet, TRAPPIST-1 c, theorized to be a Venus-like world. Unlike Venus, however, JWST failed to detect any trace of a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere.

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Could We Resurrect the Spitzer Space Telescope?

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope ceased operations in 2020. A new mission might bring it back to life. Image Credit: Rhea Space Activity

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope served the astronomy community well for 16 years. From its launch in 2003 to the end of its operations in January 2020, its infrared observations fuelled scientific discoveries too numerous to list.

Infrared telescopes need to be kept cool to operate, and eventually, it ran out of coolant. But that wasn’t the end of the mission; it kept operating in ‘warm’ mode, where observations were limited. Its mission only ended when it drifted too far away from Earth to communicate effectively.

Now the US Space Force thinks they can reboot the telescope.

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JWST Sees Frozen Water, Ammonia, Methane and Other Ices in a Protostellar Nebula

A large, dark cloud is contained within the frame. In its top half it is textured like smoke and has wispy gaps, while at the bottom and at the sides it fades gradually out of view. On the left are several orange stars: three each with six large spikes, and one behind the cloud which colours it pale blue and orange. Many tiny stars are visible, and the background is black.
This image by the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) features the central region of the Chameleon I dark molecular cloud, which resides 630 light years away. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and M. Zamani (ESA/Webb); Science: M. K. McClure (Leiden Observatory), F. Sun (Steward Observatory), Z. Smith (Open University), and the Ice Age ERS Team.

Want to build a habitable planet? Then you’ll need various and sundry ingredients such as carbon, hydrogen oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. The James Webb Space Telescope has found the building blocks for these key ingredients in the colds depths of a distant protostellar nebula called the Chameleon I molecular cloud. Scientists say the discovery of these proto-ingredients allows astronomers to examine the simple icy molecules that one day will be incorporated into future exoplanets.

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