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Star Gazing The Next Generation

Image credit (below): NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt.


When the first images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope were released, Matt Walker showed the image of Jupiter to his young son.

“I realized that this is the first image of Jupiter he’s ever seen. And what he’s seeing is the most amazing image of Jupiter that’s ever been acquired,” Walker said. “This is his square one thanks to our predecessors who devoted their life’s work to get us here.”

The Webb is the largest and most complex space science observatory ever built. Its first full-color image (pictured here) reveals thousands of galaxies in the cluster SMACS 0723 — including some of the most distant, faintest objects ever observed. The image is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.

Walker, associate professor of physics, is among the first researchers to use Webb data to discover new science. He’s analyzing images of Draco II, a nearby dwarf galaxy, looking for wide binary stars. These pairs of stars orbit each other, and their mere presence in a dwarf galaxy may upend a current theory explaining in what form dark matter exists.

Walker expects Webb’s unprecedented sensitivity to reveal ten times as many stars as earlier Hubble Telescope images, giving him an excellent chance of detecting binary stars. “If we find them, it becomes difficult for there to be ‘cold’ dark matter halos. And that would be kind of a big thing.”

■ Amy Laird