Pictures Each colored dot or oval-shaped orb dotting the background of every image collected by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and released on Tuesday, is an individual star or galaxy somewhere deep within the universe.
This Christmas, after decades of work, the $10 billion telescope was finally launched into space and sent into orbit around the Sun at a gravitationally stable point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. After extending its 22-meter (70-foot) sun visor, it set up its giant gold-plated hexagonal mirror for its detectors to begin absorbing its first light.
Photons from objects forged over 13 billion years ago bouncing off the space observatory’s mirrors are redirected to its instruments. A collection of cameras take snapshots of deep space, while spectrometers study the frequencies of detected light to get a sense of the chemical makeup of what we see.
Today, the first images taken by the JWST have arrived, revealing some of the most spectacular cosmic phenomena taking place in space. The photos, which took hours to capture and are a composite of many images, were posted online this week by NASA and friends after the first-ever snap was revealed on Monday. Let’s go through them.
The Carina Nebula [full-res sources] is shown below. The sprawling orange-brown matter is a gigantic wall of dust sculpted by ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds blowing off many hot, massive young stars. The dust carpet is the edge of a cavity surrounding a bubble hosting a thriving stellar nursery, known as NGC 3324, above an area surrounded by bright ionized gas. The highest points of the cavity extend about seven light-years from top to bottom in the image.
The Carina Nebula, taken by the JWST… Click to enlarge or see article links for very high resolution.
All images credited to: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI
The death of a star can be just as dramatic. The South Ring [full-res sources] is a planetary nebula, where a star 2,500 light-years away has been shedding a shroud of gas and dust for thousands of years as it slowly fades. The image on the left is from JWST’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam) and the image on the right is from its mid-infrared instrument (MIRI). Viewing the object in slightly different wavelengths reveals new features, such as two orbiting stars in the center of the right image.
Left is JWST’s NIRCam image of the South Ring and right is the MIRI shot
The bigger picture of the JWST [full-res source] features Stephan’s Quintet – a collection of four galaxies (NGC 7317, NGC 7318A, NGC 7318B and NGC 7319) approximately 290 million light-years away from us; and a fifth galaxy, NGC 7320, on the left side of the image, which is actually much closer, 40 million light-years from Earth. The swirling mass shows how galaxies can interact with each other, colliding with each other to stimulate the growth of new stars. Here is a link to the same image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope for comparison.
Famous Five… Stephan’s Quintet of Galaxies
Finally, the fourth image released on Tuesday is actually a graphic detailing the light spectrum of WASP-96b, an exoplanet 1,150 light-years away. Although it is 1.2 times the diameter of Jupiter, it contains less than half its mass, making WASP-96b a huge ball of gas. The spectrum reveals that the exoplanet is home to water and has a hazy atmosphere that contains clouds.
Diagram showing the composition of the atmosphere of the hot gas exoplanet Wasp 96b
These four images aren’t just pretty pictures: A panel of experts at a NASA briefing on Tuesday explained that the snaps are proof that the JWST works. It can capture light from the most distant galaxies, born more than 13 billion years ago when the universe was young, to otherworldly exoplanets nearby.
“How could you not discover things if you’re a hundred times more powerful than previous telescopes,” enthused Jane Rigby, the telescope’s project scientist for operations, during the briefing. “From the data I’ve seen so far, from the work we’ve seen…the first week of science is going to be groundbreaking. These are incredible capabilities that we’ve never had before.”
The telescope could help cosmologists study the expansion of the universe. Rigby said the probe could measure light from Cepheid stars, red giants and galaxies to calculate their precise distances from Earth, allowing researchers to estimate the Hubble constant – a much-disputed measure of the speed of d expansion of the universe.
As mankind’s most powerful infrared telescope, the JWST will allow astronomers to get a wider and deeper view of the universe with the best resolution yet. Knicole Colón, the project’s assistant scientist for exoplanet science, said it was planned to point it at the TRAPPIST system – a solar system where some planets could potentially have the right environmental conditions to support life.
“There are seven planets, and several of them are considered to be in the habitable zone of this star, which means they have the right temperature so that they can have liquid water on their surface” , she said. “What we are going to do is first check if they have any atmosphere at all… If we confirm that there is an atmosphere, what can we say about the composition? It is a type of process in stages, but this is our main opportunity to study some potentially habitable planets.”
For those eager to see more images from the JWST, more will be released on Thursday. The next set of shots, however, will be more familiar to us – they will depict objects from our own solar system. The telescope is expected to reveal never-before-seen details on planetary surfaces. “I have no doubt that we’re going to see some spectacular things from the solar system soon,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
JWST’s images remind us that space is incredibly huge and full of more fantastical objects than we know. ®