Astronomers announced a new deeper-than-ever sky survey this month (January 15, 2021), to be conducted with the James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble telescope’s successor, scheduled for launch in October of this year. The new survey is abbreviated JADES, which is short for James Webb Space Telescope Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey. The survey will be like the Hubble Deep Fields, but deeper still. Its main goal is to see far away in space – and thus far back into the very young universe – and image it just at the end of the so-called Cosmic Dark Ages, that is, at the time when gas in the universe went from being opaque to transparent. This is also the time when the very first stars were forming – very large, massive and bright stars – in a veritable firestorm of star birth when the young universe was less than 5% of its current age.
The Webb telescope will be located near the second Lagrange point – a relatively stable region of space, gravitationally speaking, known as L2 – some 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from Earth. To conduct the new survey, the Webb telescope will be staring at a small point of space for nearly 800 hours (approximately 33 days) to be able to see fainter objects than those ever seen before and thus to find the first generation of galaxies. Astronomers want to know, among other things, how fast did these galaxies form, and how fast did their stars form? They also want to look for the very first supermassive black holes, which are thought to lie at the hearts of nearly all large galaxies, including our Milky Way.
The long-anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope has been postponed a number of times for a variety of reasons, most recently because of effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the formal successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, but is equipped with instrumentation able to image further into the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum than Hubble could.
What makes the infrared part of the spectrum so important for surveys like JADES? If you look really deep, you will also look back in time, and the farther back in time you look, the more redshifted the galaxies are (the farther away they are, the faster they move away from us, and the more their light has been shifted towards the red part of the spectrum). This means that the light we want to observe, originally in the optical (visible) part of the electromagnetic spectrum, might not even show much in the optical part anymore. Instead, it’s been shifted to longer wavelengths, into the infrared regime.
In other words, the use of infrared cameras is necessary to be able to see the light from the first generation of galaxies. Daniel Eisenstein, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, said:
Galaxies, we think, begin building up in the first billion years after the Big Bang, and sort of reach adolescence at 1 to 2 billion years. We’re trying to investigate those early periods. We must do this with an infrared-optimized telescope because the expansion of the universe causes light to increase in wavelength as it traverses the vast distance to reach us. So even though the stars are emitting light primarily in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, that light is shifted quite relentlessly out into the infrared. Only Webb can get to the depth and sensitivity that’s needed to study these early galaxies.
In fact, the James Webb Space Telescope was built specifically for this purpose. Up to now, infrared images are much less resolved – less clear – than optical images, because of their longer wavelength. With its much larger collecting area, the Webb will be able to image, in infrared, at the same resolution – detail – that Hubble could obtain in the optical part of the spectrum.
Get ready for a whole new set of mind-blowing images of the universe, this time in the infrared, from Webb!