Since its launch on December 25th, the james webb space telescope successfully advanced through the different phases of the deployment of the different elements and the start-up of the telescope. On April 28, NASA announced the completion of the entire focus process of the telescope, starting the detailed characterization phase of the different instruments.

The sharper images from Webb’s MIRI instrument open up new possibilities for science. It has a sensitivity up to a hundred times greater than its predecessor, the Spitzer telescope.

Now, the US space agency has offered the latest results from MIRI (Middle Infrared Instrument)the most sophisticated instrument sent into space to work in the thermal infrared range (wavelengths from 5 to 28 microns), opening up new possibilities for science.

MIRI combines an imaging camera, an integral field spectrograph and a coronagraph. And all this with a sensitivity of ten to a hundred times greater than its immediate predecessor, the Spitzer telescope (also from NASA), and an angular resolution of 6 to 8 times greater. The comparison between their images shows the giant leap in the infrared view of the universe.

Spanish participation in MIRI

The Spanish participation in MIRI is led by the researcher louis hill of the Astrobiology Center (CAB, CSIC-INTA), to which Santiago Arribas also belongs, who participates in another of the Webb instruments (NIRSpec).

“MIRI’s characteristics make it a unique instrument and destined to be a fundamental piece in the exploration of the universe, from exoplanets and protoplanetary disks (which gave rise to planetary systems), through star-forming regions, to holes in nearby galaxies. and the formation and evolution of galaxies since the beginning of the universe and throughout its history”, highlights Colina.

Since 2001, Spain has participated in the development of the instrument and its scientific definition. Currently two members of the national team, Javier Alvarez s Álvaro Labianoare working on their commissioning and characterization in orbit at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore (USA).

Members of the Spanish MIRI team work on their commissioning and in-orbit characterization of the Baltimore Space Telescope Science Institute (USA)

As specialists in the MIRI spectrograph and interested in the formation of the first galaxies, both will try to understand the origin and formation of the massive black holes which, with masses equivalent to a billion solar masses, appear in the first epochs of the cosmos.

They also plan to track how and when the first star clusters based on a unique feature of MIRI, which is the possibility of being able to study for the first time the optical and near-infrared range of galaxies that formed at the beginning of the universe, when it was only 3-5% of its current age.

CAB researchers involved in a number of scientific projects look forward to starting analyzing the data in the summer, when the instrument tuning and characterization process is complete.

David Barrado Navascuesmember of the MIRI science team at exoplanets comments: “An iconic group of planets of various types will be observed with MIRI, including spectroscopy of hot or rocky gas giants. The coronagraph will also be used to take direct images of massive and relatively young planets. In addition, spectra of various brown dwarfsstellar objects, but with properties close to planets, to determine the properties of their atmospheres and improve theoretical models applied to exoplanets.”

“Stars and brown dwarfs – he adds –, when very young, have disks of dust and gas, remnants of the formation processes. These structures give rise to planetary systems. Detailed images and spectra will be obtained from a select group with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution, which will completely change the paradigms we had until now.”

first stars of the universe

For your part, Pablo Perez Gonzalezexpert in cosmological mapping and member of the MIRI team of the early universe, explains: “All distant galaxies that we know today, which existed in the first 5% of the age of the universe, are stars in very active formation. But observations provided so far by telescopes such as Hubble, GTC or ALMA indicate that we are not seeing the first stars that formed in these objects. The proof is that in all these galaxies there are elements heavier than hydrogen or helium, the only ones that were present when no galaxy existed.”

“Our current data – he continues – reveal only the presence of very young, massive and hot stars, which are tremendously bright. MIRI, in a unique way and thanks to its sensitivity and spatial resolution, will give us information about Older, Smaller, and Evolved Stars that are present in these distant galaxies, which dominate their total mass, and which until now have remained completely hidden from our telescopes, blinded by the very bright young stars.”

Webb’s main objective is to explore our cosmic origins: to observe the universe’s first galaxies, reveal the birth of stars and planets, and examine exoplanets for conditions that favor life; and MIRI will be a key element in this exploration

Luis Colina (CAB, CSIC-INTA)

Almudena Alonso Herreroa member of the MIRI team from nearby galaxies, adds: “The galaxies that we will observe in this program contain supermassive black holes in their centers that are actively accumulating material. In addition, superwinds associated with the active core, as well as intense star formation, were detected in several of them. The MIRI observations will allow us to study the material that obscures these active nuclei, the superwind kinematics and the central regions of these galaxies where new stars are forming. In addition, the possible effect that superwinds may have on the galaxies that host them will be investigated.”

MIRI will also make it possible to study with unprecedented clarity the properties and survival of complex molecules, the so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons with dozens of carbon atoms, in extreme radiation environments near supermassive black holes. In a MIRI image of the Large Magellanic Cloud, in addition to a large number of stars, one can observe the diffuse emission produced by the dust and these molecules.

“Webb’s main objective is to explore our cosmic origins: it will observe the first galaxies in the universe, reveal the birth of stars and planets, and examine exoplanets for conditions conducive to life. Undoubtedly, MIRI will be a key element in this exploration”, concludes Colina.

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