BALTIMORE — In many ways, the conference underway this week at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore is more like a celebration.
About one year into the science mission for the James Webb Space Telescope, the historic observatory is largely an awe-inspiring success.
Take, for instance, Marcia Rieke, the principal investigator in charge of the near-infrared camera aboard the observatory, called NIRCam. Rieke took the lectern Monday morning wearing a jacket printed with one of the first James Webb images to be released to the public: a capture of the “Cosmic Cliffs,” a star-forming region about 7,600 light-years from Earth in the Carina Nebula.
Her earrings were tiny replicas of the telescope’s primary mirror, a golden honeycomb made up of 18 hexagonal segments.
Speaking to the assembled crowd inside the auditorium, holding nearly 180 people, and a host of attendees watching online, Rieke described how the infrared camera, and other instruments aboard the telescope, are exceeding expectations.
From the moment scientists opened the orbiting Webb telescope’s powerful eyes to gaze at a star, they could see distant galaxies in the background, once hidden in the inky-black depths of space — showcasing the observatory’s power compared with its predecessors.
For that reason, images captured by Webb are instantly recognizable. So much so that when a French physicist shared an image last year on Twitter, claiming it was a star captured by James Webb, astronomers could tell immediately it was a prank. (It was actually a slice of chorizo.)
“Almost as soon as that appeared, people said: ‘No, that can’t be a real JWST image because there are no galaxies in the background,’” said Rieke, a professor at the University of Arizona.
Since the telescope’s launch on Christmas Day in 2021, the institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has been its earthly home base. From a control room overlooking wooded Wyman Park and the waters of Stony Run, scientists carefully monitor the observatory’s status, ensuring that its various instruments are operating as planned.
The institute also sends all commands up to the telescope, determining where it will cast its gaze. After they’re dispatched from Charm City, the telescope’s marching orders are transmitted via one of the radio antennas in the Deep Space Network, which are located in Goldstone, California; Madrid; and Canberra, Australia.
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