NASA Web to Reveal the Riches of the Early Universe

NASA Web to Reveal the Riches of the Early Universe

This image shows where the James Webb Space Telescope will observe the sky within the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which consists of two fields. The General Next-Generation Deep Extragalactic Expeditionary Survey (NGDEEP), led by Stephen L. Finkelstein, will direct the Webb’s Near Infrared and Notch Spectrograph (NIRISS) imager on the Hubble Ultra Deep Core Field (shown in orange), Webb’s near infrared. The camera (NIRCam) is in the parallel field (shown in red). The program led by Michael Maceda will monitor the primary field (shown in blue) using Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec). Credit: Science: NASA, ESA, Anton M. Cuquemore (STScI) Illustration: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

For decades, telescopes have helped us capture light from galaxies that formed nearly 400 million years after the Big Bang — incredibly early in the course of the universe’s 13.8 billion year history. But what were such galaxies that existed even before that, when the universe was translucent at the beginning of a period known as the era of reionization? NASA’s next ground-breaking observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is poised to add new riches to our wealth of knowledge, not only by capturing images of early galaxies from the first hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, but also by giving us the detailed data known in the name of spectra. Through Webb’s observations, researchers will be able to tell us about the formation and composition of individual galaxies in the early universe for the first time.

The Next Generation Exploration General Deep Extragalactic Survey (NGDEEP), co-led by Stephen L. Finkelstein, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, will target the same two regions that make up Hubble’s Ultra-Deep Field — locations in the constellation Fornax where Hubble has spent more than 11 years. A day in deep exposure. To produce its observations, the Hubble Space Telescope targeted regions near the sky simultaneously using two instruments — balanced slightly from each other — known as the primary and parallel field. “We have the same advantage with Webb,” Finkelstein explained. “We’re using two science tools simultaneously, and they’ll be constantly watching.” They’ll point the Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Spectrograph (NIRISS) on the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Core, and the Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the parallel-field, making it get twice the bang for the buck for the telescope’s time.

For imaging with NIRCam, they will monitor over 125 hours. With every passing minute, they would get more and more information from deeper and deeper in the universe. What are they seeking? Some of the oldest galaxies formed. “We have really good indications from Hubble that there are galaxies in place sometime 400 million years after the Big Bang,” Finkelstein said. “The galaxies we see with Hubble are very large and very bright. It’s very likely that there are smaller, fainter galaxies that formed even earlier and are waiting to be found.”

This program will use about a third of the time Hubble has so far spent on similar investigations. why? Partly because Web Tools are designed to capture infrared light. When light travels through space towards us, it extends to longer, redder wavelengths due to the expansion of the universe. “Webb will help us push all boundaries,” said Jennifer Lutz, co-investigator of the proposal and director of the Gemini Observatory, which is part of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab (National Optical and Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory). “And we will release the data immediately for the benefit of all researchers.”

These researchers will also focus on determining the mineral content of each galaxy, especially in smaller, less faint galaxies that have not yet been thoroughly examined – specifically with NIRISS’s Spectra Webb instrument. “One of the primary ways we track evolution through cosmic time is the amount of minerals in the galaxy,” explained Danielle Berg, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a researcher co-author of the proposal. When the universe began, there was only hydrogen and helium. New elements were formed by successive generations of stars. By cataloging the contents of each galaxy, researchers will be able to accurately determine when different elements were present and update models that show how galaxies evolved in the early universe.

Take a journey through time and space into the early universe with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. How will Webb reveal the first never-before-seen galaxies? What are astronomers looking for? Find out the answers to these questions and more with this video. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Daniel Kirchenblatt (STScI)

Peeling off new layers

Another program led by Michael Maceda, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will examine the ultra-deep Hubble core field using a microshot array inside the Webb’s Near Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec). This tool returns spectra of specific objects based on the miniature shutters that the researchers open. “These galaxies existed during the first billion years of the universe’s history, about which we have very little information until now,” Maceda explained. “Webb will provide the first large sample that will give us the opportunity to understand it in detail.”

We know that these galaxies exist because of extensive observations that this team – along with an international research team – made with the Ground-based Very Large Telescope’s Multi-Unit Spectral Explorer (MUSE) instrument. Although MUSE is the “Explorer”, identifying the smaller and fainter galaxies in this deep field, Webb will be the first telescope to fully describe their chemical compositions.

These extremely distant galaxies have important implications for our understanding of how galaxies formed in the early universe. “Webb will open up a new field of discovery,” explained Anna Feltri, research fellow at the National Institute of Astrophysics in Italy and co-researcher. “Her data will help us figure out what exactly happens when a galaxy forms, including what minerals it contains, how fast it grows, and whether it actually contains black holes.”

This research will be conducted as part of Webb’s General Observer (GO) programs, which are competitively selected using an anonymous double review, the same system used to allocate time on the Hubble Space Telescope.

The first full-color science images from the Webb Telescope to be released in July

Submitted by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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