Beyond the Frontier Fields: How JWST Will Push the Science to a New Frontier

The Frontier Fields Project has been an ambitious campaign to see deep into our universe. Gravitational lensing, as used by the Frontier Fields Project, enables Hubble to see fainter and more-distant galaxies than would otherwise be possible. These images push to the very limits of how deeply Hubble can see out into space.

Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and other observatories are doing cutting-edge science through the Frontier Fields Project, but there’s a challenge. Even though leveraging gravitational lensing has allowed astronomers to see objects that otherwise could not be detected with today’s telescopes, the technique still isn’t enough to see the most distant galaxies. As the universe expands, light gets stretched into longer and longer wavelengths, beyond the visible and near-infrared wavelengths Hubble can detect. To see the most distant galaxies, one needs a space telescope with Hubble’s keen resolution, but at infrared wavelengths.

That infrared telescope is the James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch in October 2018. It has a mirror 6.5 meters (21 feet) across, can observe wavelengths up to 10 times longer than Hubble can observe, and is the mission that will detect and study the first appearances of galaxies in the universe.full_jwst_hst_mirror_comparison

Figure 1: Webb will have a 6.5-meter-diameter primary mirror, which would give it a significant larger collecting area than the mirrors available on the current generation of space telescopes. Hubble’s mirror is a much smaller 2.4 meters in diameter, and its corresponding collecting area is 4.5 square meters, giving Webb around seven times more collecting area! Webb’s field of view is more than 15 times larger than the NICMOS near-infrared camera on Hubble. It also will have significantly better spatial resolution than is available with the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA. http://webbtelescope.org/gallery

Observations of the early universe are still incomplete. To build the full cosmological history of our universe, we need to see how the first stars and galaxies formed, and how those galaxies evolved into the grand structures we see today.

 

Looking back in time to the first light in the universe:

Astronomers use light to explore the universe, but there are pieces of our universe’s early history where there wasn’t much light. The era of the universe called the “Dark Ages” is as mysterious as its name implies. Shortly after the Big Bang, our universe was filled with glowing plasma, or ionized gas. As the universe cooled and expanded, electrons and protons began to bind together to form neutral hydrogen atoms (one proton and one electron each). The last of the light from the Big Bang escaped (becoming what we now detect as the Cosmic Microwave Background). The universe would have been a dark place, with no sources of light to reveal this cooling, neutral hydrogen gas.

Some of that gas would have begun coalescing into dense clumps, pulled together by gravity. As these clumps grew larger, they would become stars and eventually galaxies. Slowly, starlight would begin to shine in the universe. Eventually, as the early stars grew in numbers and brightness, they would have emitted enough ultraviolet light to “reionize” the universe by stripping electrons off neutral hydrogen atoms, leaving behind individual protons. This process created a hot plasma of free electrons and protons. At this point, the light from star and galaxy formation could travel freely across space and illuminate the universe. It is important to note here, astronomers are currently unsure whether the energy responsible for reionization came from stars in the early-forming galaxies; rather, it might have come from hot gas surrounding massive black holes or some even more exotic source such as decaying dark matter.

The universe’s first stars, believed to be 30 to 300 times as massive as our Sun and millions of times as bright, would have burned for only a few million years before dying in tremendous explosions, or “supernovae.” These explosions spewed the recently manufactured chemical elements of stars outward into the universe before the expiring stars collapsed into black holes.

Astronomers know the universe became reionized because when they look back at quasars — incredibly bright objects thought to be powered by supermassive black holes — in the distant universe, they don’t see the dimming of their light that would occur if the light passed through a fog of neutral hydrogen gas. While they find clouds of neutral hydrogen gas, they see almost no signs of neutral hydrogen gas in the matter located in the space between galaxies. This means that at some point the matter was reionized. Exactly when this occurred is one of the questions Webb will help answer, by looking for glimpses of very distant objects still dimmed by neutral hydrogen gas.

Much remains to be uncovered about the time of reionization. The universe right after the Big Bang would have consisted of hydrogen, helium, and a small amount of lithium. But the stars we see today also contain heavier elements — elements that are created inside stars. So how did those first stars form from such limited ingredients? Webb may not be able to see the very first stars of the Dark Ages, but it’ll witness the generation of stars immediately following, and analyze the kinds of materials they contain.

Webb’s ability to see the infrared light from the most distant objects in the universe will allow it to truly identify the sources that gave rise to reionization. For the first time, we will be able to see the stars and quasars that unleashed enough energy to illuminate the universe again.

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Figure 2: JWST will be able to see back to when the first bright objects (stars and galaxies) were forming in the early universe. Credit: STScI. http://jwst.nasa.gov/firstlight.html

 

Early Galaxies:

Webb will also show us how early galaxies formed from those first clumps of stars. Scientists suspect the black holes born from the explosions of the earliest stars (supernovae) devoured gas and stars around them, becoming the extremely bright objects called “mini-quasars.” The mini-quasars, in turn, may have grown and merged to become the huge black holes found in the centers of present-day galaxies. Webb will try to find and understand these supernovae and mini-quasars to put theories of early galaxy formation to the test. Do all early galaxies have these mini-quasars or only some? These regions give off infrared light as the gas around them cools, allowing Webb to glean information about how mini-quasars in the early universe work — how hot they are, for instance, and how dense.

Webb will show us whether the first galaxies formed along lines and webs of dark matter, as expected, and when. Right now we know the first galaxies formed anywhere from 378,000 years to 1 billion years after the Big Bang. Many models have been created to explain which era gave rise to galaxies, but Webb will pinpoint the precise time period.

Hubble is known for its deep-field images, which capture slices of the universe throughout time. But these images stop at the point beyond which Hubble’s vision cannot reach. Webb will fill in the gaps in these images, extending them back to the Dark Ages. Working together, Hubble and Webb will help us visualize much more of the universe than we ever have before, creating for us an unprecedented picture that stretches from the current day to the beginning of the recognizable universe.

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Figure 3: This illustration shows the cold side of the Webb telescope, where the mirrors and instruments are positioned. Credit: Northrop Grumman. http://webbtelescope.org/gallery

 

Resources:

https://frontierfields.org/2016/07/21/the-final-frontier-of-the-universe/

http://hubble25th.org/science/8

http://webbtelescope.org/article/13

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A Century Later, General Relativity is Still Making Waves

[Note: this article is cross-posted on the Hubble’s Universe Unfiltered blog.]

In November 1915, Albert Einstein published a series of papers that laid out the ideas, equations, and some astronomical applications of the general theory of relativity. While Isaac Newton described gravity as a force between two massive bodies, Einstein’s general relativity re-interprets gravity as a geometric distortion of space and time (see my previous blog post “Einstein’s Crazy Idea” ).

One example cited in those papers was that general relativity can explain the extra precession of Mercury’s orbit that Newton’s formulation does not explain. Another prediction, the bending of light as it passes a massive object, was tested and shown accurate less than four years later. This effect, called gravitational lensing has been shown in tremendous detail by the Hubble Space Telescope (see my previous blog post “Visual “Proof” of General Relativity“), and is one of the prime motivations behind the Frontier Fields project.

Last year, scientists celebrated the centennial of general relativity. The theory has been a resounding success in diverse astronomical situations. However, there was one major prediction that had not yet been tested: gravitational waves.

General relativity predicts that mass not only can create distortions in space-time, but also can create waves of those distortions propagating across space-time. In cosmology, the global expansion of space over time is a familiar concept. For a gravitational wave, space also stretches / shrinks, but that localized distortion moves across space at the speed of light.

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The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is one of the projects designed to observe the minute distortions of gravitational waves. It consists of two detectors, one in Hanford, WA, and one in Livingston, LA. Each detector has two perpendicular arms, consisting of ultra-high-vacuum chambers four kilometers (two and a half miles) in length.

For the experiment, a laser light source is split and sent down and back each arm. By measuring how the laser light signals interfere with each other when recombined, extremely precise measurements of any change in distances can be made. The idea is that when a gravitational wave passes by, the minuscule stretch of one arm and shrink of the other will be observable.

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The signal observed in the LIGO event GW150914

On September 14, 2015, both LIGO detectors observed an event (see the accompanying image). The pattern in the signal indicates that a series of gravitational waves passed through the detectors in about two-tenths of a second. It is extremely important that multiple detectors saw the same event so that local disturbances can be ruled out. Plus, the time delay between the detectors helps measure the speed of the waves.

To analyze the event, the LIGO team used computer simulations. The shape and duration of the event waveform matched that expected for the merger of two black holes. The amplitude of the detection helped determine how far away the black-hole merger took place. The best fit is a merger of a 36-solar-mass black hole with a 29-solar-mass black hole to form a 62-solar-mass black hole, about 1.3 billion light-years away.

The energetics of the merger are simply astounding.Recognizing that 36 + 29 = 65, one can see that three solar masses of material did not end up in the resulting black hole. Instead, it was converted in the energy that created the gravitational wave. Released in less than half a second, the peak wattage of the event was greater than the visible light wattage from all the stars in the observable universe.

And yet, when detected on Earth, the measured space distortion was smaller than the size of a proton. The reason it took a century to find gravitational waves is because one has to measure subatomic displacements. Gravity is demonstrably the weakest of the four fundamental forces. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to produces a gravitational wave that can be seen at cosmic distances.

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There are several major results from this observation. The detection shows, for the first time, that both black-hole mergers and gravitational waves exist. The time delay between detectors, and analysis of the signal at different frequencies, demonstrates that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light. All the results are consistent with the predictions of general relativity.

This event marks the beginning of gravitational-wave astronomy. With more detectors coming online and planned improvements to current detectors, the field is burgeoning. Dozens to thousands of black-hole or neutron-star mergers, with more detail about each event, should be found in the next decade.

More than a billion years ago, two black holes merged in a distant galaxy, emitted a tremendous amount of energy, and created a gravitational ripple moving across space. Recently, the LIGO project detected this almost infinitesimal motion of space; a deviation much smaller than the size of an atom. With that amazing observation, the last major prediction of general relativity was verified. A century later, Einstein still rules.

How Hubble Observations Are Scheduled

This is the third in a three-part series.

After observing time is awarded, the Institute creates a long-range plan. This plan ensures that the diverse collection of observations are scheduled as efficiently as possible. This task is complicated because the telescope cannot be pointed too close to bright objects like the Sun, the Moon, and the sunlit side of Earth. Adding to the difficulty, most astronomical targets can only be seen during certain months of the year; some instruments cannot operate in the high space-radiation areas of Hubble ’s orbit; and the instruments regularly need to be calibrated. These diverse constraints on observations make telescope scheduling a complex optimization problem that Institute staff are continually solving, revising, and improving.”

Preparing for an observation also involves selecting guide stars to stabilize.the telescope’s pointing and center the target in the instrument’s field of view. The selection is done automatically by the Institute’s computers, which choose two stars per pointing from a catalog of almost a billion stars. These guide stars will be precisely positioned within the telescope’s fine guidance sensors, ensuring that the target region and orientation of the sky is observed by the desired instrument.”]

A weekly, short-term schedule is created from the long-range plan. This schedule is translated into detailed instructions for both the telescope and its instruments to perform the observations and calibrations for the week. From this information, daily command loads are then sent from the Institute to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to be uplinked to Hubble.

Hubble’s Flight Operations Team resides in the Space Telescope Operations Control Center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.  In addition to monitoring the health and safety of the telescope, they also send command loads to the spacecraft, monitor their execution, and arrange for transmission of science and engineering data to the ground.

Hubble’s Flight Operations Team resides in the Space Telescope Operations Control Center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. In addition to monitoring the health and safety of the telescope, they also send command loads to the spacecraft, monitor their execution, and arrange for transmission of science and engineering data to the ground.

The journey from proposal through selection and scheduling culminates in the email informing astronomers that their data is ready to be accessed. Usually, the process takes more than a year from idea to data—sometimes even longer. Of course, that’s when the real work begins—the analysis of the data and the hard work of uncovering another breakthrough Hubble discovery!

How Hubble Observations Are Planned

This is the second in a three-part series.

Researchers awarded telescope time based on the scientific merit of their Phase I proposal must submit a Phase II proposal that specifies the many details necessary for implementing and scheduling of the observations. These details include such items as precise target locations and the wavelengths of any filters required.

Once an observation has occurred, the data becomes part of the Hubble archive, where astronomers can access it over the Internet. Most data is marked as proprietary within the Institute computer systems for 12 months. This protocol allows observers time to analyze the data and publish their results. At the end of this proprietary-data-rights period, the data is made available to the rest of the astronomical community. (Most of the very large programs, such as Frontier Fields, have given up proprietary time as part of their proposal.)

This is a view of the many computers that are part of the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), located at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md. The archive is named in honor of the United States Senator from Maryland for her career-long achievements and becoming the longest-serving woman in U.S. Congressional history. MAST is NASA’s repository for all of its optical and ultraviolet-light observations, some of which date to the early 1970s. The archive holds data from 16 NASA telescopes, including current missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Kepler. Senator Mikulski is in the center, STScI Director Matt Mountain at her right, and STScI Deputy Director Kathryn Flanagan at her left. The plaque to image right is a photo of Supernova Milkuski, an exploding star that the Hubble Space Telescope spotted on Jan. 25, 2012. It was named in honor of the Senator by Nobel Laureate Adam Riess and the supernova search team with which he is currently working. The supernova, which lies 7.4 billion light-years away, is the titanic detonation of a star more than eight times as massive as our Sun.

This is a view of the many computers that are part of the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), located at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md. The archive is named in honor of the United States Senator from Maryland for her career-long achievements and becoming the longest-serving woman in U.S. Congressional history. MAST is NASA’s repository for all of its optical and ultraviolet-light observations, some of which date to the early 1970s. The archive holds data from 16 NASA telescopes, including current missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Kepler. Senator Mikulski is in the center, STScI Director Matt Mountain at her right, and STScI Deputy Director Kathryn Flanagan at her left. The plaque to image right is a photo of Supernova Milkuski, an exploding star that the Hubble Space Telescope spotted on Jan. 25, 2012. It was named in honor of the Senator by Nobel Laureate Adam Riess and the supernova search team with which he is currently working. The supernova, which lies 7.4 billion light-years away, is the titanic detonation of a star more than eight times as massive as our Sun.

Along with their Phase II proposal, observers can also apply for a financial grant to help them process and analyze the observations. These grant requests are reviewed by an independent financial review committee, which then makes recommendations to the Institute director for funding. Grant funds are also available for researchers who submit Phase I proposals to analyze non-proprietary Hubble data already archived. The financial committee evaluates these requests as well.

Up to 10 percent of Hubble ’s time is reserved as director’s discretionary time and is allocated by the Institute director. Astronomers can apply to use these orbits any time during the course of the year. Discretionary time is typically awarded for the study of unpredictable phenomena such as new supernovae or the appearance of a new comet. Historically, directors have allocated large percentages of this time to special programs that are too big to be approved for any one astronomy team. For example, the observations of the Frontier Fields use director’s discretionary time.

In my last post, I talked about how observations are proposed.  In my next post, I will talk about how observations are scheduled.