Astronomers celebrate historic first images from James Webb Telescope

For Papovich and his fellow astronomers around the world, that wait is officially over. collection of Webb’s first color images and spectroscopic data. The historic images represent the first sightings of five targets selected by NASA to demonstrate the JWST’s unrivaled capabilities and provide tangible proof that the $10 billion telescope is now fully powered and ready to use its unprecedented infrared vision to begin to go back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies form in the darkness of the early universe.

“In a word, wow, because it’s been pretty mind-blowing,” Papovich said. “There were things that I expected, but there were a lot more that were surprises. Part of my mind knew that would be the case, but it was pretty impressive all the same. The structure and the The details you can see in this galaxy image alone are incredible. Hubble doesn’t have the resolution to recognize individual star clusters in galaxies, but here, if you look closely, you can see and count the number of cluster of stars. I didn’t expect to see this. Webb had promised he could do these things, but to actually see it was impressive.

An image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, unveiled Monday by President Joe Biden as Webb’s first deep-field image.


Papovich detailed his immediate thoughts during a break between meetings on Tuesday at the Space Telescope Science Institute, where he is on standby with his fellow researchers affiliated with the Early Release Science (ERS) program for the next exciting development: pending release. Thursday’s release of more than 50 terabytes of data from the telescope’s first few months of observing the cosmos that will feature prominently in the dozen or so submissions it will participate in over the coming year.

“Everything went quickly and smoothly because everything was done well,” Papovich said. “The data we will get on Thursday was taken in June because all the instrumentation was working so well and fast and therefore they could. I don’t know how NASA did it, but it’s just phenomenal.

Papovich, a member of the Texas A&M Department of Physics and Astronomy and the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy since 2008, is one of seven Texas A&M astronomers who are principal or co-principal investigators on no less more than two dozen proposals got time on JWST during its first year in space. NASA received approximately 1,200 first-year research proposals and, after a peer review process, selected 266 to move forward. One of Papovich’s submissions is the second largest in the General Observer (GO) program and received one of the largest time shares on JWST in Cycle 1.

“If I were to summarize our program, we would probably be the deepest JWST imagery that will be done in the first year that has been approved by the NASA peer review board within the 6,000 hours allotted to the global astronomical community,” Papovich said. , Marsha L. ’69 and Ralph F. Schilling ’68 Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M. “JWST will show us details of distant galaxies that we have never seen. However, we may not be the deepest depending on what the JWST instrument teams end up doing. They have their own time, so the “deepest” label might depend on the qualifiers.

Portrait of Casey Papovitch

Texas A&M astronomer Casey Papovich.

Texas A&M College of Sciences

The complete list of investigators affiliated with Texas A&M is as follows:

  • Robert C. Kennicutt Jr.: co-investigator on a General Observer (GO) proposal and collaborator on one of the Guaranteed Time Observations (GTO) projects awarded to scientists who provide key components of the JWST
  • Lucas Macri: co-principal investigator on a proposal to study Cepheid variables in nearby galaxies as part of the SH0ES project
  • Casey Papovich: Co-Principal Investigator of the Next Generation Deep Extragalactic Exploratory Public Inquiry (NGDEEP); co-investigator on the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey and PRIMER (large cycle 1 imaging program in the COSMOS and UDS fields); team member on 11 other proposals
  • Justin Spilker: principal investigator on “The Early Assembly History of the Most Massive Halo in the Reionization Era” and co-investigator on two others, including the Early Release Science TEMPLATES program (ERS-01355)
  • Nicholas Suntzeff: Co-investigator on “MIR Spectroscopy of Type Ia Supernovae: The Key to Unlocking Their Explosions and Element Production” and “Dust, Mass Loss and Massive Star Explosions in the MIR”
  • Jonelle Walsh: principal investigator on “Probing the supermassive black hole M87 with stellar dynamics at the Parsec scale” and co-investigator on “Revealing Low-Luminosity Active Galactic Nuclei (ReveaLLAGN)”
  • Lifan Wang: co-investigator on four projects, one on supernova 1987A, one on late-epoch Type Ia supernovae, one on late-epoch core-collapse supernovae, and one on time-domain astronomy

“In the months and years to come, Webb will observe light from the first galaxies that formed after the universe began nearly 14 billion years ago, study objects in our own solar system, observe the life cycle of stars in distant galaxies and will study the properties of planets orbiting other stars, or so-called exoplanets,” Papovich said. “In all likelihood, Webb’s observations will transform our understanding of astronomical phenomena. “

The JWST is an international program led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Webb will solve the mysteries of our solar system, look beyond distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it.

“I hope you’ll forgive my childish wonder here,” Papovich said. “That’s why I got into astronomy in the first place – this incredible sense of discovery.”

Learn more about JWST and its mission to unveil the infrared universe at

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