A Spectacular Look at Things to Come from the James Webb Space Telescope

NASA/JPL-Caltech (left), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right

NASA and the James Webb Space Telescope team have spoken for years about how the observatory, once it is in place and fully aligned and calibratated, will revolutionize astronomy and lead to a bounty of space discoveries.

The agency has now released some early images, produced before the process of fine-tuning the telescope is finished.  And they visually certainly do make the case for the JWST to be precisely the ground-breaking pioneer long promised.

Its goals are to explore the earliest light in the universe, to possibly observe the first stars and galaxies being born and — for the exoplanet and astrobiology community — to study exoplanets and their atmospheres with unprecedented precision.

A sample of the extraordinary precision Webb will provide can be seen in the images above, which are of the same region of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.

The image on the left was taken with one of the earliest Great Observatory telescopes — the retired Spitzer Space Telescope, and its Infrared Array Camera.  The observatory was launched in 2003 and was a pioneering instrument in its time.

But on the right is the new JWST image of the Large Magellenic Cloud, taken with its Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI camera.   The galaxy’s  wispy gases and bright stars make it apparent why astronomers are ecstatic about the new worlds that will become visible to them.

“This is a really nice science example of what Webb will do for us in the coming years,” Christopher Evans, a Webb project scientist with the European Space Agency, said of the images in at a recent NASA press conference.

“This is just going to give us an amazing view of the processes in a different galaxy for the first time, cutting through the dust,” Evans said.

Michael McElwain, a Webb observatory project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center,  said he was “delighted to report that the telescope alignment has been completed with performance even better than we had anticipated.”

The Large Magellenic Cloud, from Spitzer image to JWST, ( NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)

The Webb observatory can see so much better because it has a significantly larger primary mirror than on past observatories (the Hubble Space Telescope main mirror is 2.4 meters in diameter versus meters for JWST) and has improved detectors.  Webb sees the cosmos in the infrared and near-infrared wavelengths, but the images will be translated into visible light

The preparation and testing of the telescope’s science instruments (a process called commissioning) will take about two months to complete.… Read more

New Findings Suggest the Building Blocks For Life’s Genetic Structure May Well Have Arrived From Above

Conceptual image of meteoroids delivering nucleobases to ancient Earth. The nucleobases are represented by structural diagrams with hydrogen atoms as white spheres, carbon as black, nitrogen as blue and oxygen as red. (NASA Goddard/CI Lab/Dan Gallagher)

All of life, from simplest to most complex, contains five information-passing compounds that allow the genetic code to work.  These nitrogen-based compounds, called nucleobases, are found in all the the DNA and RNA that  provide the instructions to build and operate every living thing on Earth.

How these compounds are formed, or where they come from, has long been a key question in astrobiology and the search for the origin of life.

Numerous theories have been advanced to explain their presence, including that they arrived on Earth via meteorites and the infall of dust.  But until recently, only three of these nucleobases have been found embedded in meteorites but, puzzlingly, the two others have not been found.

Now an international team centered in Japan has completed the search for nucleobases in meteorites by finding the remaining two, and so it appears possible that all these building blocks of the genetic code could have arrived on very early Earth from afar.

Yasuhiro Oba of the University of Hokkaido, and lead author of the new study in Nature Communications, said that  extraterrestrial material arrived in much greater quantities on the early Earth — during what is called the period of “late heavy bombardment” — and so the discovery “of all five primary nucleobases in DNA/RNA indicates that these components should have been provided to the early Earth with such extraterrestrial materials.”

This certainly does not mean that fully formed DNA or RNA was delivered to Earth.  Oba said the process of making those nucleic acids from components parts, including nucleobases, is under active study but is not particularly well understood.  But it does mean that essential building blocks for the genetic backbone of life clearly did arrive from space for possible use in the life-forming process.

“We don’t know how life first started on the Earth, but the discovery of extraterrestrial nucleobases in meteorites provides additional support for the theory that meteorite delivery could have seeded the early Earth with the fundamental units of the genetic code found in DNA and RNA in all life today,” said co-author Daniel Glavin of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.

“These nucleobases are highly soluble in liquid water, so over time, any meteorite fragments exposed to water on the early Earth would be extracted from the meteorites into the water and could therefore contribute to the chemical inventory of the prebiotic soup from which life emerged.”… Read more

A Clue Into The Makeup of Jupiter’s Moon Europa Provided by the Greenland Ice Sheet

Double ridge ice formations seen on Europa are similar to formations detected on the Greenland Ice Sheet. This artist’s rendering shows how double ridges on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa may form over shallow, refreezing water pockets within the ice shell. This mechanism is based on the study of an analogous double ridge feature found on Earth’s Greenland Ice Sheet. (Justice Blaine Wainwright)

Europa’s ice crust is crossed by thousands of double ridges, pairs of long parallel raised lines with a small valleys in between, sometimes as much as hundreds of miles long and skyscraper-height tall rims. While these double ridges are ubiquitous on Europa’s surface, how they form remains something of a mystery to scientists.

Dustin Schroeder, an associate professor of geophysics at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, was working on an issue related to climate change when he saw double ridges similar to those seen on Europa here on Earth.  The ridges, in Northwest Greenland, were tiny when compared with those on Europa, but the found the same “M”-shaped crest as found everywhere on that Jovian moon.

“We were working on something totally different related to climate change and its impact on the surface of Greenland when we saw these tiny double ridges – and we were able to see the ridges go from ‘not formed’ to ‘formed,’ ” Schroeder said.

Could the double ridges be forming as a result of processes similar to those that form the double ridges on Europa?

If so, then Greenland would provide a possibly important new window into a central question about Europa:  Is that thick ice shell surrounding the subsurface ocean completely solid, or does it have what are called “water sills” within the shell?

This is important because, as the Nature Communications paper concludes, “If the same process is responsible for Europa’s double ridges, our results suggest that shallow liquid water is spatially and temporally ubiquitous across Europa’s ice shell.”

Or as Schroeder put it, “If the mechanism we see in Greenland is how these things happen on Europa, it suggests there’s water everywhere,” he said in a release.

They can make this inference because the double ridges formed in Greenland are the known, and detectable, result of the dynamics of subsurface water surrounded by the ice sheet.

Surface imagery comparison of a double ridge on Europa (a) and on Earth (b), on the Northwest Greenland Ice Sheet.

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“Nature Has Become More Beautiful.” Physicist Eugene Parker and his Life Unlocking Secrets Of The Sun

 

Parker with an image of the solar corona, the outermost portion of Sun’s atmosphere.  Parker brought new understanding to the nature and workings of the corona and the solar wind, which originates in the corona. (University of Chicago)

When  Eugene Parker was 16 years old,  he decided he didn’t want to spend the summer hanging out in suburban Detroit.  So Parker went up to the state capital looking to buy some tax delinquent land held by the state.

He selected a 40-acre piece of woods in far-off Cheboygan County, not far from Mackinac Island.  There was nothing on the land but trees.  He bought it with $120 from his own earlier summertime earnings.

Over the next three summers, Parker, his younger brother and sometimes a cousin and a friend constructed a log cabin on the land.  Because this was during World War II and gas was strictly rationed,  they couldn’t ask their parents for a ride up, and so they often bicycled the more than 300 miles to their homestead.

The cabin still doesn’t have electricity or indoor running water, but it has been used regularly by Parker and his family for almost 80 years.  And in many ways, that cabin reflects the basic character, the drive and the profound originality of the boy who built it and went on to become one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century.

The young Parker atop a birch  tree in 1943, on the site where his northern Michigan cabin would be built. (Courtesy of the Parker family.)

Eugene Parker, who passed away earlier this month at 94, has been hailed as the father of solar physics and is perhaps best known as the man who — basically single-handedly and despite many eminent critics –came up with the theory of the “solar wind,” a torrent of charged particles and magnetic fields that always and in all directions is blasting out from the Sun.

Parker’s innumerable achievements in his field, as well as his old-school civility and demeanor, earned him the first and only honor of its kind given by NASA — having a major space mission named after him while alive.

Ailing and aged 91, he nonetheless went with his family down to Florida in 2018 to watch the launch of the Parker Solar Probe — an extraordinary mission that flies through the blast furnace of the Sun’s corona in its effort to learn more about the origins of the solar wind and the forces at play that produce that still mysterious solar corona.… Read more

The World’s Most Capable Space Telescope Readies To Observe. What Will Exoplanet Scientists Be Looking For?

This artist’s concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star.  The James Webb is expected to begin science observations this summer. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The decades-long process of developing, refining, testing, launching, unfurling and now aligning and calibrating the most capable space telescope in history is nearing fruition.  While NASA has already released a number of “first light” images of photons of light moving through the James Webb Space Telescope’s optical system, the  jaw-dropping “first light” that has all the mirrors up and running together to produce an actual scientific observation is a few months off.

Just as the building and evolution of the Webb has been going on for years, so has the planning and preparation for specific team observation “campaigns.”   Many of these pertain to the earliest days of the universe, of star and galaxy formation and other realms of cosmology,  but an unprecedented subset of exoplanet observations is also on its way.

Many Worlds earlier discussed the JWST Early Release Science Program, which involves observations of gigantic hot Jupiter planets to both learn about their atmospheres and as a way to collect data that will guide exoplanet scientists in using JWST instruments in the years ahead.

Now we’ll look at a number of specific JWST General Observation and Guarantreed Time efforts that are more specific and will collect brand new information about some of the major characteristics and mysteries of a representative subset of the at least 100 billion exoplanets in our galaxy.

This will be done by using three techniques including transmission spectroscopy — collecting and analyzing the light that passes through an exoplanet’s atmosphere as it passes in front of its Sun.  The JWST will bring unprecedented power to characterizing the wild diversity of exoplanets now known to exist; to the question of whether “cool” and dim red dwarf stars (by far the most common in the galaxy) can maintain atmospheres; to newly sensitive studies of the chemical makeup of exoplanet atmospheres; and to the many possibilities of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, a seven rocky planet solar system that is relatively nearby.

An artist’s interpretation of GJ 1214b,one of a group of super-Earth to mini-Neptune sized planets to be studied in the JWST Cycle1 observations. The planet is known to be covered by a thick haze which scientists expect the JWST to pierce as never before and allow them to study atmospheric chemicals below.

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The European Space Agency Cuts Ties to Russia On Its ExoMars Mission. But U.S-Russian Cooperation Continues on the ISS

ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover had been set to search for signs of life on the surface of Mars, with its launch set for this year. Its future is now in doubt because of a suspension of relations with its Russian partners due to the sanctions imposed following of the Russian invasion of Ukraine . (ESA/ ATG medialab)

The European Space Agency has decided that is currently impossible to continue any ongoing cooperation with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, and is moving forward with a “fast-track industrial study” to define how the mission can proceed without the Russians on its ambitious ExoMars astrobiology mission.

In a release, ESA said that “as an intergovernmental organization mandated to develop and implement space programs in full respect with European values, we deeply deplore the human casualties and tragic consequences of the aggression towards Ukraine. While recognizing the impact on scientific exploration of space, ESA is fully aligned with the sanctions imposed on Russia by its member states.”

The decision to rethink the mission without the Russians involved came as Roscosmos has also moved to break space ties with ESA by withdrawing personnel from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana and putting all ESA missions scheduled for launch by Russian Soyuz rockets on hold.  In all, five Soyuz launches of missions — Galileo M10, Galileo M11, Euclid, Earthcare and one other — have been cancelled.

The ESA statement said that the agency has begun looking for potential alternative launch services for those  missions, too.

ESA has 22 European member nations and has worked frequently with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, as well as Roscosmos.

American and Russians astronauts, as well as those from Europe, Japan, Canada and elsewhere, have cooperated on the ISS now for decades. In this image from 2013 are Expedition 35 Commander Chris Hadfield (right) from Canada, then clockwise NASA astronauts Tom Marshburn and Chris Cassidy, and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Misurkin, Roman Romanenko and Pavel Vinogradov.   Can the cooperation last?  (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center)

At the same time that the European-Russian space partnership has been put on hold and possibly cancelled, the cooperation between Russia and the NASA, ESA, the Japanese Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency has continued on the International Space Station.

There was earlier some doubt about Russian participation on the ISS after Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin  threatened to pull out of the space station and allow it to fall back to Earth in an uncontrolled deorbit to protest of international sanctions on Russia for its Ukraine invasion.… Read more

The James Webb Space Telescope And Its Exoplanet Mission (Part 1)

 

This artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope in space shows all its major elements fully deployed. The telescope was folded to fit into its launch vehicle, and then was slowly unfolded over the course of two weeks after launch. (NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez)

 

The last time Many Worlds wrote about the James Webb Space Telescope, it was in the process of going through a high-stakes, super-complicated unfurling.  About 50 autonomous deployments needed to occur after launch to set up the huge system,  with 344 potential single point failures to overcome–individual steps that had to work for the mission to be a success.

That process finished a while back and now the pioneering observatory is going through a series of alignment and calibration tests, working with the images coming in from the 18 telescope segments to produce one singular image.

According to the Space Telescope Science Institute,  working images from JWST will start to appear in late June, though there may be some integrated  “first light” images slightly earlier.

Exciting times for sure as the observatory begins its study of the earliest times in the universe, how the first stars and galaxies formed, and providing a whole new level of precision exploration of exoplanets.

Adding to the very good news that the JWST successfully performed all the 344 necessary steps to unfurl and that the mirror calibration is now going well is this:  The launch itself went off almost exactly according to plan.  This means that the observatory now has much more fuel on hand than it would have had if the launch was problematic. That extra fuel means a longer life for the observatory.

 

NASA announced late last month that it completed another major step in its alignment process of the new James Webb Space Telescope, bringing its test images more into focus. The space agency said it completed the second and third of a seven-phase process, and had accomplished “Image Stacking.” Having brought the telescope’s mirror and its 18 segmented parts into proper alignment, it will now begin making smaller adjustments to the mirrors to further improve focus in the images. (NASA/STScI)

Before launch, the telescope was expected to last for five years.  Now NASA has said fuel is available for a ten year mission and perhaps longer.  Quite a start.

(A NASA update on alignment and calibration will be given on Wednesday. … Read more

Will The ISS Fall Victim to Russia’s Ukraine Invasion and Resulting Sanctions? Can The ExoMars Project Survive?

NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have been cooperating (with other national agencies) on the International Space Station since development began in the early 1990s. . But the director of Roscosmos has said that cooperation could end abruptly due to mounting sanctions against Russia. (NASA)

The United States and Russia have cooperated extensively and well in building and operating the International Space Station since the plan was formalized in 1993.  The European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency have played major roles since the beginning, but it was first and foremost a U.S.-Russian venture.

That deep cooperation has been failing for some years but the bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine and resulting Western sanctions may well put a final end of that.

Late last week, as Russia invaded Ukraine and Western nations responded with increasingly harsh sanctions, the director of Russia’s space agency chief sent out a harsh, sarcastic and threatening tweet about that ISS partnership.

After President Biden announced Thursday that the U.S. would sanction major Russian banks and impose export controls on Russia to curtail high-tech imports, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that the sanctions could “destroy our cooperation on the ISS.”

Not only that, he said that the current orbit and location of the ISS is under his nation’s control since Russian Progress spacecraft keep it from losing altitude.  He went on in a long tweet that threatened: “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled de-orbit and fall into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect?”

“The ISS does not fly over Russia, therefore all the risks are yours.  Are you ready for them?”  Rogozin, a longtime Putin ally, has been at the helm of Roscosmos since May 2018 and was previously a deputy prime minister in charge of the Russian defense industry.

In a statement, NASA said that “The new export control measures will continue to allow U.S.-Russia civil space operation. No changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in-orbit and ground-station operations.” 

There are four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts, and one European astronaut now aboard the ISS.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has warned that U.S. sanctions against the Russian space sector could have serious consequences for the International Space Station.

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Venus, as Never Seen Before

The darkside of Venus, as imaged by an optical and near infrared camera on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. (NASA)

For the first time, the surface of Venus has been imaged in visible wavelengths from space. The camera on the Parker Solar Probe pierced through the thick Venusian cloud cover and captured blurred but extremely valuable images of the highlands and lowlands of the planet.

The breakthrough images came thanks to a spacecraft with an entirely different mission — the Parker Probe, which has been exploring and progressively nearing the Sun in unprecedented ways.  And to get ever closer, it uses trips around Venus to slow down and thereby fly closer to the Sun.

It was during two of those trips around Venus in 2000 and 2001 that the Parker camera, which sees in visible and near infrared wavelengths, was able to  image the night side of Venus.  This was a first and totally unexpected, since Venus is known to have a dense cover of clouds.

The planet is also, of course, stunningly hot, with a mean temperature of 867 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface.  But the temperatures are lower on the elevated Aphrodite Terra, the largest highland region on the Venusian surface, and that is the area that shows as being dark in the images.

“Venus is the third brightest thing in the sky, but until recently we have not had much information on what the surface looked like because our view of it is blocked by a thick atmosphere,” said Brian Wood, lead author on the new study in Geophysical Research Letters and a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.  “Now, we finally are seeing the surface in visible wavelengths for the first time from space.”

The presentation below, put together by NASA, the John’s Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and Naval Research Lab, is a stitched together video of the Parker Probe’s  Feb. 20, 2021 pass by the dark side of the planet.

Clouds of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid obstruct most of the visible light coming from Venus’ surface and so observing from both the ground and from space has relied on radar and observing wavelengths in the infrared that can pierce through the clouds.

But on two passes, the the Parker Probe’s Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) picked up a range of wavelengths from 470 nanometers to 800 nanometers. Some of that light is the near-infrared – wavelengths that we cannot see, but sense as heat – and some is in the visible range, between 380 nanometers and about 750 nanometers.… Read more

Can We Trust a Handful of Grains to Tell Us About the Early Earth? A Look at the Hayabusa2 Asteroid Sample

The Hayabusa2 sample return capsule returning to Earth. The bright streak in the sky is the capsule, shock heated as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The bright lights on the ground are buildings. (JAXA)

In the early hours of December 6, 2020, what appeared to be a shooting star blazed across the sky above the Woomera desert in South Australia. The source was the sample return capsule from JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission, which contained precious material from a near-Earth asteroid known as Ryugu.

Within 60 hours, the capsule had been retrieved and flown to the curation facility at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Japan. In vacuum conditions to prevent any trace of contamination, the capsule was opened to reveal over 5 grams of asteroid grains.

This material is expected to have undergone little change since the early days of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, and its highly anticipated analysis could provide new information about how the Earth acquired water and organics needed to begin life. The sample is the first ever collected from a carbonaceous (C-type) asteroid, which resemble primitive meteorites found to have a chemical composition close to that of the Sun.

Tet despite a rigorously planned and executed journey of over 5,000 million kilometers to bring back a pristine sample from space, concerns have remained. Chief among these are whether the rocky grains in the sample capsule were typical of the asteroid.

If the Hayabusa2 spacecraft had inadvertently gathered grains from an unusual spot, or if the grains had been altered during the collection and return to Earth, then deductions about the asteroid’s composition–and therefore our solar system’s past–could be wrong.  

The sample from asteroid Ryugu (from Yada et al. Nature Astronomy 2021)

The Hayabusa2 team had already gone to rather extreme lengths to mitigate this issue.

In addition to the rapid retrieval operation that ensured that the sample was not contaminated by our planet’s atmosphere, the spacecraft had performed the dangerous landing twice on the surface of asteroid Ryugu to collect samples from two separate sites.

One of these locations was close to where the spacecraft had made an artificial crater, ejecting material from beneath the asteroid’s surface to be gathered during the second collection operation. Rocky grains from below the top layer surface are expected to be particularly pristine, as they have been protected from the bombardment of sunlight, cosmic rays and micrometeorites.… Read more

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