The powerful James Webb Space Telescope reveals its first images: is life hiding somewhere in the Universe?

the essential
This Tuesday, July 12, NASA will release the first images from 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 star system: TRAPPIST-1 to, perhaps, consider discovering life in the Universe.

It is done ! The first images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) arrive this Tuesday, July 12. Images that will amaze enthusiasts as its precision is revolutionary. This is an event that astronomers around the world have been waiting 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 yet to be revealed by NASA and the stakes are in the hands of the researchers.

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

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A long-term job

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 Earth, reaching 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. Then you will be able to go 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 there is a red dwarf called TRAPPIST-1 around which seven exoplanets (planets that do not orbit around the sun) orbit. “This system has the peculiarity of being very close to us, only 40 light years away, which is minimal on the scale of the galaxy,” explains Michael Gillon, a researcher at the University of Liège who, together with his team, has discovered TRAPPIST-1 seven years ago.

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

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The main mission of the James Webb telescope will be to analyze whether or not there is an atmosphere on the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system. “We hope that at the end of the first observation cycle (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 have an atmosphere, the JWST will analyze its composition.

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

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