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U of M professor reflects on stunning new images from NASA telescope

The new images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope are the sharpest images of the early universe that have ever been taken. The photos show the farthest humanity has ever seen in time and distance.

The first image was posted on Monday, followed by five more on Tuesday. The breathtaking views show a galaxy cluster as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago, the final stages of a star’s life and never-before-seen details of this group of galaxies, which will allow astronomers to observe how galaxies interact.

“We have this new tool that allows us to explore where we’ve never been able to explore before,” said Evan Skillman, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

“The Webb represents a whole new opportunity for whole new ideas,” Skillman said. “Things that have never been tried before. This is a huge technical achievement, as the engineers worked out a huge amount of problems to put this thing together to get these capabilities. It’s really not just a bit better in some way – they’ve opened up whole new windows.

The telescope was launched on Christmas Day last year. It has unprecedented sensitivity to infrared light and was designed to observe every phase of cosmic history, from our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies.

“The very first science image Webb took after calibration was an image for our program,” Skillman said.

He is involved in a program started by one of his former students, who is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

“The Webb wanted to identify programs that they could look at in the very first weeks and months of operation,” Skillman explained. “They wanted to do sample science images in the first few weeks to make sure it worked.”

He expects them to see those images later this week when they are made public. Skillman is also one of several programs that have successfully secured viewing time in the future.

NASA accepted proposals from researchers around the world who wanted the ability to use the telescope to study various targets in space. After a competitive process, 286 proposals were selected.

“I need to receive feedback over the next 18 months as each program is run,” Skillman said. “We want to explore. We want to understand things better. This telescope builds on a legacy of other space telescopes, other ground-based telescopes that we explore in the skies to get a better perspective on our place in the universe.

He said the images already released provided new insight into his own research.

“There was a spectrum shown of a galaxy…and my colleague pointed out one of the very faint emission lines, which I had used to determine metal abundances in other galaxies,” Skillman explained. “Now she was like, ‘Look, you can do this with galaxies as they’re being born.’ It was very exciting.

Skillman thinks the new capabilities of this telescope will also help us better understand our own solar system.

“What we’ve come to appreciate is that there are things in our solar system that seem pretty typical – the planets seem to be around all the stars,” he said. “But we also discovered that there are different types of planets for which there are no prototypes in our solar system. The study of different types of planets mirrors theories of planet formation, so we maybe we can understand how our planets came to be.