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Montreal astronomer on new space telescope's view of 13 billion-year-old light, exoplanets, star nurseries

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which, have a blue or orange hue. The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.
One of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope is the "Cosmic Cliffs" in the Carina Nebula, made using infrared technology. It shows previous unseen areas of star birth in the region NGC 3324, roughly 7,600 light-years away.

The most powerful telescope ever built has photographed some of the very first galaxies to form in the universe.

The White House released the first image from the James Webb Space Telescope during a preview event on Monday. The telescope is the most sophisticated observatory ever launched, and it left Earth six months ago to journey to its temporary home about a million miles away.

The Webb Telescope is designed to gather and analyze infrared light, which cannot be seen by the human eye.

And on Tuesday morning, NASA released several more images from the telescope.Just before the reveal, we spoke with one of the space experts at the event about what pictures like this can tell us.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with University of Montreal professor René Doyon, an expert in astronomical instrumentation and exoplanets. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Have you seen this full collection of images yet?

René Doyon: The images were revealed to us a few days ago, and they're just absolutely stunning. You're gonna, you know, it breaks a jaw, to see these beautiful images and spectroscopic data.

distant galaxies appear as bright glowing spots in this Webb telescope image, with some smeared by gravitational lensing; foreground stars appear bright with six-pointed diffraction spikes, owing to the shape of Webb's mirrors.
The first image made by the James Webb Space Telescope was released by the White House on Monday. It's the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. It shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago, with more galaxies in front of and behind this cluster.

What's so incredible about them? What stands out to them more than other images you've seen from telescopes over the years?

Well, it's the perspective. Webb is an infrared telescope and give us access to new colors, new wavelength that Hubble cannot give us. And so we really have a new perspective that we cannot get with Hubble.

And it's also the crispness of these images. They're very sharp, because the telescope is much larger than Hubble. And, you know, compared to previous telescope, like also Spitzer, that it was operating at wavelengths similar to the new instrument. That was a little telescope, 85-centimeter mirror, and this one is 6.5 meters. So the images are very, very sharp. It's difficult to describe, you'll have to see them.

I imagine so, and I think a lot of people are going to be really, really looking forward to seeing these images. How far back did these pictures go related to the origin of the universe as we know it from the Big Bang?

Well, they go back to about 13 billion years ago. So the universe is 13.8 billion years [old]. And we think that the very first stars, the very first galaxies, lit up, we think, a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. In fact, that's the big question we're trying to answer with Webb. And Hubble cannot really go back to maybe, at that length, 12.5, 12.8 billion years. But now we're gonna go close to 13.

All images and data you're going to see today, is only 120 hours. Well, there are more than 6,000 useful hours you can use every year, years after years, day and night with Webb. So this is literally a tsunami of data that's just about to start.

"Today, we're turning the page on several new chapters to understand the universe, from the early universe, exoplanet atmospheres, how stars and planetary systems form, and many other things."
René Doyon, University of Montreal

Tsunami of data — incredible. Well, that brings the question, then, what are astronomers like yourself hoping to learn from these images?

Well, the images actually represent the various science teams that Webb will do. And also representative of all science instrument that will be used. But also we're going to see an exoplanet spectrum. So that's a big science team with Webb.

Not only do we want to look at the smallest speck of light in the early universe, we can look at very bright stars in our cosmic garden, to study exoplanet atmosphere. And so we want to understand whether life exists. And the big step toward that is to basically detect exoplanet atmosphere and determine their chemical composition. And you're going to see molecules that are detected — this is the best spectroscopic data ever obtained on a transiting exoplanet, and that was only with one visit.

You're gonna see also beautiful images of star from star-forming region, the Carina Nebula. This is a region where young stars are being formed, you know, several thousands of planetary systems like ours, but you know, several billion years ago. And these images are just so incredible. They look very much like pieces of art that are now revealed by the telescope.

One advice — you're gonna see these pictures on your screen, but they don't really give justice to the quality. Just download them and see the details, zoom them, then you're going to see incredible details. They're not just stunning for the public but also for scientists.

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Professor Doyon, any time stories like this come out in the media, lay people like myself often wonder one thing. And that is, is this going to bring us any closer to finding out whether or not we can make some kind of determination, or perhaps best-case scenario (or worst-case scenario), contact with some kind of alien life form that must exist in the universe given how vast it is? Are these images going to get us any closer to answering that question, do you think?

Webb was designed to detect exoplanets. The game plan is to detect biological activity. Worlds that we know are conducive for life to thrive. So the big question, the very first question is, do you look at these planetary systems and answer the question, do they have an atmosphere? And what it's made of? You're going to see molecules that are already familiar today, with this exoplanet spectrum.

a spectroscopy chart for exoplanet WASP-96 b with a best-fit line in blue set against an illustrated background of an exoplanet; the chart has peaks associated with H2O in the composition of the exoplanets atmosphere
WASP-96 b is one of more than 5,000 confirmed exoplanets in the Milky Way. And the James Webb Space Telescope's spectrograph detected the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding the hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star.

So, I mean, it's a bit of a cliché, but I think it's true. Today, we're turning the page on several new chapters to understand the universe, from the early universe, exoplanet atmospheres, how stars and planetary systems form, and many other things.

It's really amazing. And one final question for you, how did it feel to you personally to be selected as one of the experts that NASA would turn to, to analyze these images and data?

Well, I guess it's my position. I'm the principal investigator of the Canadian-built instrument by the Canadian Space Agency. I joined this project 20 years ago, and wow, it's been an incredible journey. And so yeah, that's a very moving moment today, to be here and see these wonderful images and share that with the public.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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