This morning, NASA released even more tantalizing images and data gathered by the agency’s powerful James Webb Space Telescope, showing off vibrant nebulas and exotic galaxies in unprecedented detail. The stunning debut of this cadre of images reveals the diversity of science the observatory will be capable of achieving while it’s in space.
The images join the very first picture from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, that NASA and President Joe Biden released yesterday during a special briefing at the White House. That first picture — a portion of the night sky called SMACS 0723 — showcased a dizzying array of thousands of distant galaxies, all bundled into just a tiny dot in the sky about the size of a grain of sand when held out an arm’s distance. NASA hailed the image as the deepest infrared image of the Universe ever taken. In fact, the light from some of the galaxies in the picture has traveled roughly 13 billion years to reach JWST.
Peering deep into the cosmos is just one of the many incredible things that JWST is designed to do. With its massive 21-foot-wide gold-coated mirror, the observatory is tasked with gathering light from the distant Universe, objects within our own Solar System, and even the light surrounding far-off worlds. Today’s images each showcase an exciting ability of the observatory — and they’re only a jumping-off point of what’s to come. It’s got approximately 20 years left in its lifespan to serve up more delicious astronomical treats.
“What happened after the Big Bang? How did the galaxies grow? How did the first black holes grow? What happened all the way from there to here?” John Mather, a Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist at NASA, asked during a livestream of the photos’ reveal. “So this is our time machine.”
Yesterday, NASA announced that it had officially finished calibrating JWST’s various instruments and testing out all of its different operating modes, meaning the observatory and its tools have all been deemed ready to start collecting data. And there’s a hefty to-do list for JWST. Its first year of science is filled to the brim with various observations of the cosmos, all overseen by scientists around the world who competitively bid to have some precious time with the telescope.
So as dazzling as these first JWST images are, they’re just the tip of a cosmic iceberg, one we can’t fully see until the telescope points its mirror at various patches of the sky.
Whet your appetite by learning more about JWST’s first data and full-color images and what they mean for science operations to come.
The inhabitants of this image are alluded to in the name. It’s a gaggle of five galaxies, surrounded by a colorful array of galaxies and stars, some within our own Milky Way and some much farther away. While the galaxy in the upper left is thought to actually be in the foreground closer to Earth, the other four — located roughly 300 million light-years away — are repeatedly coming into close contact with one another. It’s a cataclysmic dance that distorts their shapes and causes a flurry of star birth within their spiral arms. Two of the galaxies in the center of the image can be seen in the process of actively merging.
“This is a very important image and area to study, because it really shows the type of interaction that drives the evolution of galaxies — that’s the mechanism of galaxies’ growth,” Giovanna Giardino, a NIRSpec instrument scientist at the European Space Agency, said.
The primary image above is a combination of both mid-infrared and near-infrared images, but NASA also shared another image of the Quintet in just the mid-infrared, which showcases mostly the gas and dust of the dancing galaxies. By stripping away that light, we see a surprise shining bright in the center of the top galaxy.
“That’s an active black hole,” Giardino said. “We cannot see the black hole itself, but we see the materials swirling around, being swallowed by this sort of cosmic monster.” That swirling heats up the surrounding gas and dust so much that it glows extremely bright. It’s so luminous, in fact, that the resulting glow is 40 billion times as bright as that of our Sun.
JWST was able to capture the spectrum — or the breakdown of light — filtered through the atmosphere of a planet outside of our Solar System, or an exoplanet. It’s a capability that no one truly imagined when the first iterations of JWST were dreamed up in the late 1980s, but it’s shaping up to be one of the more exciting things that the observatory can do.
In 1992, astronomers confirmed the existence of the first known exoplanets, and since then, an entire new field dedicated to hunting for these distant worlds has emerged and flourished over the last few decades. Specifically, scientists are on the hunt for Earth 2.0, a rocky world like ours that may have the right conditions to host life as we know it on its surface. One way to find that out? Look at the air surrounding the exoplanet to see what kinds of gases are present. If the chemical makeup of the atmosphere matches our own, perhaps life exists there, too.
Now, JWST may prove to be a valuable tool in that search. Up until now, breaking down the light in the atmospheres of planets has been incredibly difficult, as these objects are both small and faint, often drowned out by the light of the stars that they orbit. But with its precision and power, JWST will be able to collect the light filtered through the very thin layer of gases around a distant planet. That’s exactly what the observatory did with this latest image. It shows the spectrum of the atmosphere of WASP-96 b, a giant planet about half the mass of Jupiter that is mostly comprised of gas itself, according to NASA.
While this exoplanet probably doesn’t host the kind of life we’re looking for, it does have some interesting components in its atmosphere. “What you’re seeing here is the telltale signature, the chemical fingerprint of water vapor... in the atmosphere of this specific exoplanet,” Knicole Colon, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said during a briefing today on the spectrum. That water isn’t liquid but most likely water vapor. But it shows just how much detail JWST can get of an exoplanet’s atmosphere.
And perhaps there are other worlds that JWST can peer into to tell us more.
Southern Ring Nebula
The spellbinding Southern Ring Nebula looks like a giant turquoise ring in the night sky, one that spans half a light-year across. It’s also known as the “Eight Burst” Nebula, as it can look like a sideways figure eight from certain viewpoints. The gas of the nebula is actually expanding, moving at nine miles per second, rapidly away from the dying binary star at the structure’s center — the brilliant speck of light in the heart of the image.
The two images above show different views of the nebula taken by two of JWST’s instruments. The left is from the observatory’s NIRCam, the telescope’s main camera that sees in the near-infrared, while the right shows an image from JWST’s MIRI instrument, which sees in the mid-infrared. The various colors in the images correlate to the different materials found inside the nebula, such as molecular hydrogen and hot ionized gas.
Thanks to the power of JWST, we can see the binary star at the heart of the nebula much more clearly. “As we go into the center, we see kind of the surprise for us, which is we knew this was a binary star, but we effectively didn’t really see much of the actual star that produced the nebula,” Karl Gordon, an instrument scientist on JWST, said. But thanks to MIRI, the binary star comes into much clearer focus.
Another fun detail, courtesy of JWST: a background galaxy, facing us edge on, can be seen, looking like a thin streak in the upper left-hand side of the images.
We all got a taste of this glorious, galaxy-filled image yesterday, but NASA has provided a few more details about what exactly we’re looking at. In the foreground of the image is a massive galaxy cluster located 4.6 billion light-years away. They’re so massive that they warp space and time around them, creating a lensing effect that magnifies the galaxies in the background.
“The gravity of the cluster is distorting and warping our view of what’s behind,” Jane Rigby, operations project scientist for JWST at NASA, said during the briefing. “And so there are these galaxies that look stretched and pulled, kind of like they’ve been magnified — because they’ve been magnified by the gravity of the cluster just like Einstein said they would.”
Perhaps one of the more iconic nebulas captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, the Carina Nebula is a massive, luminous cloud of gas and dust located roughly 7,600 light-years from Earth. The nebula is a giant — and violent — star incubator, home to newly forming stars that are tearing apart the materials around them, as well as stars on the brink of their own self-destruction.
While Hubble’s pictures of the Carina Nebula have always been stunning, JWST’s latest image takes things up a notch. This picture shows the cosmic cliffs of the nebula in stunning detail and color, revealing more detail about this area than ever before. “Today, for the first time, we’re seeing brand new stars that were previously completely hidden from our view,” Amber Straughn, deputy project scientist for JWST at NASA, said, adding, “Honestly, it took me a while to even figure out what to call out in this image. There’s just so much going on here. It’s so beautiful.”
Hundreds of new stars can be seen in this image that scientists hadn’t seen yet, as well as even more violent jets and bubbles caused by baby stars tearing away at the nearby gas and dust. Ultimately, this image is something of a showstopper among the release, showing the sheer might of JWST. But it also serves as a reminder of why we peer into the cosmos in the first place.
“It just reminds me that you know our sun and our planets — and ultimately us — were formed out of the same kind of stuff that we see here,” Straughn said. “We humans really are connected to the Universe. We’re made of the same stuff in this beautiful landscape.”