Dazzling first images from James Webb Space Telescope

Dazzling first images from James Webb Space Telescope

Published July 14, 2022
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Images of five targets include the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date.

Southern Ring Nebula, as observed in infrared by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

With the world watching, NASA revealed the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), marking the beginning of a new era in our understanding of the universe.

Instead of orbiting Earth like its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST will orbit the sun at a position about 1 million miles farther out than Earth’s orbit. The space telescope, a project 30 years in the making, launched in December 2021 and arrived at its destination point in January. After a lengthy “unfolding” process, JWST turned its 21-foot mirror on the stars. Today we see its first observations.

Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, known as Webb’s First Deep Field, released July 11, 2022. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Webb’s First Deep Field, Galaxy Cluster SMACS 0723

Teeming with thousands of galaxies, including the faintest objects ever observed in infrared light, this image represents a tiny speck of outer space about the size of a grain of sand held up at arm’s length. The image, taken with JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared some 4.6 billion years ago. That cluster is acting as a “gravitational lens,” bending and distorting light from the galaxies behind it—including some distant red galaxies more than 13 billion years old.

“Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula, as captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

“Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula

This massive landscape of cosmic mountains and valleys in the Carina Nebula is known as the “Cosmic Cliffs.” Here the bubbles, cavities, and jets of newborn stars are made visible through the dust in a way that was impossible when the Hubble Space Telescope imaged this region of intense star formation. The youngest stars appear as red dots in the darker areas of the dust cloud; others are emitting ‘protostellar’ jets typical of early star birth. This image illustrates the delicate balance of forces at play during the birth of stars. The tallest “peaks” are a staggering seven light-years high. They’ve been slowly eroded by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from hot, young stars nearby. As the bright, ionized rim of the cloud moves down, unstable material may collapse to form new stars. But this disturbance can also prevent star formation. Images like these will help JWST researchers understand why stars form at specific sizes and masses, and why some regions host more than others.

Composite image of a galaxy group known as Stephan’s Quintet. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Stephan’s Quintet

This massive composite image shows the compact galaxy group Stephan’s Quintet in unprecedented detail, with clusters of young, sparkling stars and starburst regions where new stars are being born. The gravitational interactions pull broad trails of gas and dust away from the galaxies, and Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument captures huge shockwaves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, slams through the cluster. JWST’s instruments also reveal hot gas near a supermassive black hole in the top galaxy and measure its bright outflows in spectacular detail.

The Southern Ring Nebula visualized in near-infrared light (left) and mid-infrared light (right) by NASA’s Webb Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Southern Ring Nebula

This pair of images of the Southern Ring Nebula shows two powerful perspectives on the same binary star system, a white dwarf and its younger counterpart. Before it became a white dwarf, the older star periodically ejected its outer layers, repeatedly contracting, heating, and pushing out material like a rotating sprinkler. Its partner, which has yet to shed its layers, closely orbits its dimmer companion, helping to distribute the material. In the near-infrared image on the left, the younger, brighter star partially obscures the white dwarf to its lower left. In the mid-infrared image on the right, we can see the white dwarf more clearly, surrounded by dust, a view made possible because of the power of JWST’s instruments.

A transmission spectrum reveals atmospheric characteristics of the gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Exoplanet WASP-96 b (spectrum)

Although JWST has not captured a direct image of exoplanet WASP-96 b, it doesn’t need one to learn all about this hot, rather puffy, gas giant. Instead, researchers were able to observe the transit of the exoplanet across its star, which is roughly 1,150 light-years away from Earth, and detect changes in the wavelengths of light. This graph is a representation of the data they gathered about WASP-96 b’s atmosphere. The labeled peaks indicate the presence of water vapor, specifically clouds of water droplets. And the gradual downward slope at the left side indicates possible haze. All this tells observers that it’s hot and wet on WASP-96 b—the height of the peaks, compared with other characteristics of this spectrum, suggest an atmospheric temperature of 1,350 F!

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