Sun. Aug 14th, 2022

This morning, NASA released even more tantalizing images and data collected by the agency’s powerful James Webb Space Telescope, which shows vibrant nebulae and exotic galaxies in unprecedented detail. The stunning debut of this frame of images reveals the diversity of science that will be able to reach the observatory while in space.

The images tie in with the first-ever image from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, released by NASA and President Joe Biden yesterday at a special briefing at the White House. That first image — part of the night sky called SMACS 0723 — showed a dizzying array of thousands of distant galaxies, all clustered into just a tiny speck in the sky about the size of a grain of sand when held at arm’s length. NASA touted the image as the deepest infrared image of the Universe ever captured. In fact, the light from some of the galaxies in the picture traveled about 13 billion years to reach JWST.

Peering deep into the cosmos is just one of the many incredible things JWST was designed for. With its massive 21-foot-wide gold-coated mirror, the observatory is tasked with collecting light from the distant universe, objects within our own solar system, and even the light that surrounds distant worlds. Today’s images each showcase an exciting capability of the observatory — and they’re just a starting point of what’s to come. It still has about 20 years in its lifespan to serve up more delicious astronomical delights.

“What happened after the big bang? How did the galaxies grow? How did the first black holes form? What happened all the way from there to here?” asked John Mather, a Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist at NASA, during a livestream of the photos’ unveiling. “So this is our time machine.”

Yesterday, NASA announced that it had officially finished calibrating JWST’s various instruments and testing all of its different modes of operation, meaning the observatory and its tools are all ready to begin collecting data. And there’s a hefty to-do list for JWST. The first year of science has been filled to the brim with various observations of the cosmos, all overseen by scientists around the world who compete competitively 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 that we can’t fully see until the telescope points its mirror at different parts of the sky.

Work up your appetite by learning about the early data and color images from JWST and what they mean for future scientific operations.

Stephan’s Quintet

Stephan’s Quintet
NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

The inhabitants of this statue are mentioned in the name. It’s a bunch of five galaxies surrounded by a colorful array of galaxies and stars, some within our own Milky Way and some much further away. While the galaxy in the upper left corner is actually thought to be closer to Earth in the foreground, the other four — about 300 million light-years away — repeatedly come into close contact. It’s a catastrophic dance that distorts their shapes and triggers a flurry of star birth in their spiral arms. Two of the galaxies in the center of the image are actively merging.

“This is a very important image and area to study because it really shows the type of interaction that drives galaxy evolution — that’s the mechanism of galaxy growth,” said 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 the mid-infrared only, showing mostly the gas and dust of the dancing galaxies. By removing that light, we see a surprise shining brightly in the center of the upper galaxy.

Stephan’s Quintet as Recorded by JWST’s MIRI Instrument
NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

“That’s an active black hole,” Giardino said. “We can’t see the black hole itself, but we see the materials swirling around, swallowed by this kind of cosmic monster.” That vortex heats the surrounding gas and dust so much that it glows extremely bright. In fact, it’s so bright that the resulting glow is 40 billion times brighter than our sun’s.

WASP-96 b

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

JWST was able to capture the spectrum – or the breakdown of light – filtered through the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system, or an exoplanet. It’s a possibility that no one really imagined when the first iterations of JWST were conceived in the late 1980s, but it’s going to be one of the more exciting things the observatory can do.

In 1992, astronomers confirmed the existence of the first known exoplanets, and since then a whole new field has emerged dedicated to hunting these distant worlds. Specifically, scientists are looking for Earth 2.0, a rocky world like ours that may have the right conditions to harbor life as we know it on its surface. Any way to find out? Look at the sky around the exoplanet to see what types of gases are present. If the chemical makeup of the atmosphere is similar to ours, life may exist there too.

Now JWST may prove to be a valuable tool in that quest. Until now, it has been incredibly difficult to break down the light in the atmospheres of planets, because these objects are both small and dim and are often drowned out by the light from the stars they orbit. But with its precision and power, JWST can capture the light filtered by the very thin layer of gases surrounding a distant planet. That’s exactly what the observatory did with this last image. It shows the spectrum of the atmosphere of WASP-96 b, a gigantic planet about half the mass of Jupiter that, according to NASA itself, is largely made up of gas.

While this exoplanet probably doesn’t harbor the kind of life we’re looking for, it does have some interesting components in its atmosphere. “What you see here is the telltale signature, the chemical fingerprint of water vapor … in the atmosphere of this particular exoplanet,” said Knicole Colon, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, during a briefing today on the spectrum. That water is not liquid, but most likely water vapor. But it shows how much detail JWST can get from an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

And maybe there are other worlds that JWST can look into to tell us more.

Southern Ring Nebula

The enchanting Southern Ring Nebula looks like a giant turquoise ring in the night sky, a ring half a light-year across. It is also known as the “Eight Burst” nebula because it can look like a sideways eight from certain vantage points. The nebula’s gas actually expands, moving at nine miles per second, quickly away from the dying binary star at the center of the structure — the brilliant bright spot at the center of the image.

The two images above show different views of the nebula taken by two of JWST’s instruments. The left side is from the observatory’s NIRCam, the telescope’s main camera that sees in the near infrared, while the right side shows an image from JWST’s MIRI instrument, which sees in the mid infrared. The different colors in the images correlate with the different materials found in 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 downtown, we see a kind of surprise in front of us, which is that we knew this was a binary star, but we actually haven’t really seen much of the actual star that spawned the nebula,” Karl Gordon, a instrument scientist at JWST, said. But thanks to MIRI, the binary star is much clearer.

Another neat detail, courtesy of JWST: A galaxy in the background, facing us, can be seen looking like a thin stripe in the top left corner of the images.

SMACS 0723

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO

We all got a taste of this glorious galaxy-filled image yesterday, but NASA has provided a few more details about exactly what we’re looking at. In the foreground of the image is a huge cluster of galaxies 4.6 billion light-years away. They are so massive that they distort space and time around them, creating a lens effect that magnifies the galaxies in the background.

“The cluster’s gravity distorts and distorts our view of what’s behind it,” Jane Rigby, an 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 cluster’s gravity, just like Einstein said they would.”

Carina Nebula

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Perhaps one of the most iconic nebulae captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, the Carina Nebula is a huge, luminescent cloud of gas and dust located about 7,600 light-years from Earth. The nebula is a gigantic — and violent — star incubator, home to newly formed stars tearing apart the materials around them, as well as stars on the brink of self-destruction.

While Hubble’s photos of the Carina Nebula have always been stunning, JWST’s latest photo takes it up a notch. This photo 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 see brand-new stars that were previously completely hidden from our view,” said Amber Straugn, adjunct project scientist for JWST at NASA, adding: “Frankly, it took me a while to even figure it out. what to shout in this image. There’s just so much going on here. It’s so beautiful.”

This image shows hundreds of new stars that scientists hadn’t seen before, as well as even more violent jets and bubbles caused by baby stars tearing away from nearby gas and dust. Ultimately, this image is kind of a showstopper under the release, showing the sheer power of JWST. But it also serves as a reminder of why we look into the cosmos in the first place.

“It just reminds me that you know that our sun and our planets — and ultimately us — are formed from the same kind of material we see here,” Straugn said. “We humans are really connected to the universe. We are made of the same material in this beautiful landscape.”

To develop…

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