The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) has captured the most spectacular images of deep space ever – and the imagination of millions around the world – but Western astrophysicists and partners (at home and work) Els Peeters and Jan Cami enjoyed a special sneak peek on Sept. 11 when infrared data they had commissioned was delivered right to their laptop.
The new images, targeted by an international collaboration including Peeters and Cami, were the most detailed and sharpest ever taken of the inner region of the Orion Nebula, a nursery of stars situated in the constellation Orion 1,350 light years from Earth. Long considered an environment like the cradle of the Solar System (when it formed more than 4.5 billion years ago), scientists today are interested in observing the Orion Nebula to understand, by analogy, what happened during the first million years of our own planetary evolution.
Peeters is one of three principal investigators on PDRs4All, an international collaboration that also includes Cami and several other Western astrophysicists. PDRs4All was one of first 13 projects selected by the Space Telescope Science Institute to use Webb, meaning Peeters, Cami and their collaborators get about 40 hours of data collection time with Webb early in its mission.
What was your initial reaction when you first saw the JWST images?
Jan Cami: Els saw the first images very early in the morning on Sept. 11, and excitedly woke me up to show me. Our first words were, perhaps unsurprisingly, “Oh wow!”
Els Peeters: We were as stunned as everybody else when we saw all these intricate details in the images. At first sight already, there was so much more in the images than we could have dreamed of when we submitted the proposal in 2017. It was like a piece of art delivered from space!
What has the reaction been like from students and colleagues at Western? And your family and friends?
Peeters: Everybody loves the images and loves sharing the excitement and enthusiasm. Family, friends and colleagues were all very proud and supportive when they saw the images and interviews appear in the news and online. They excitedly shared links with us to online shops selling shower curtains or coffee mugs with the images.
Where do working with these images rank in your career accomplishments?
Peeters: Being the principal investigator of a large international collaboration that is amongst the first to use the most powerful telescope ever built to look at one of the most iconic objects in space: yes, definitely a career highlight for me.
Cami: The excitement over these new observations is unmatched. We are still early in the scientific discovery phase, and I’m pretty sure what we will learn from these observations will match our discovery of buckyballs in space 12 years ago, which is still the highlight for me.
What’s next for you in terms of working with these images?
Peeters: The entire team has been frantically working away on the images and other observations (spectra) that we obtained since we first got the data on Sept. 11. We are about to wrap up and submit the first three large science papers that detail some of our first discoveries and findings. A whole new batch of observations is scheduled for January. This is such a treasure trove of new discoveries, that we may well be working on JWST data until our retirement, which is still really far away (laughs).
This story is part of our Endnotes 2022 series which showcases the people behind some of the year’s most compelling Western stories.