What are the right words to describe the sight of a dying star?
“Wow. Wow. This. This near-infrared image is… wow,” James Webb Space Telescope project scientist Alex Lockwood managed to say as she and astronomer Karl Gordon recorded one of the very first images made public during a NASA broadcast on Tuesday.
Four breathtaking new images, showing distant galaxies in dazzling color, have been unveiled as the telescope’s inaugural reveals, along with an image shared on Monday that looks deeper into space than ever before. Webb is the largest and most powerful observatory ever sent into space, and its first five images depict the mission’s transition from start-up to operation and the answer to some of science’s most pressing questions.
“Today, the Webb mission is open for science business,” said Michelle Thaller, astronomer and deputy director of science communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, during the briefing. “And that’s just the beginning. The best is yet to come.”
“When you put these new capabilities online that give you this massive performance boost, a game-changing boost, you never really know what you’re going to find,” Mark Clampin, director of science and exploration at Goddard Space Flight Center, told PBS NewsHour. “We know why we built Webb and we have these programs that we will now undertake. But we also know that we’re going to discover things that we never even imagined and it’s just going to open up a whole new world of astrophysics.
Explore each of the five images below, along with their significance for this new dawn in astronomy.
A small expanse of “galaxy teeming” universe
Previewed early by President Joe Biden at a press conference on Monday, Webb’s first “deep field” image “is full of galaxies,” Jane Rigby, operations project scientist for JWST, said during the briefing. These distant galaxies appear in the image as they were billions of years ago.
READ MORE: This is the deepest, clearest infrared image of the universe ever produced
Rigby noted that with Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Telescope, capturing a deep-field image took about two weeks. But the first image of Webb was taken “before breakfast”.
“What’s amazing with Webb is how quickly we can produce discoveries,” Rigby said, adding that the footage unveiled on the show depicts a week’s worth of work, a pace that will continue throughout. of Webb’s mission.
Evidence of atmospheric water vapor on a distant planet
WASP-96 b is a gaseous planet beyond our solar system, located more than 1,000 light-years from Earth. The image above depicts the first-ever spectrum of an exoplanet taken by Webb, whose observations cover new wavelengths of infrared light and give astronomers more detail than ever before, said Knicole Colón, assistant scientist of the JWST project for the science of exoplanets.
Spectroscopy takes starlight that has filtered through a planet’s atmosphere and analyzes that light to determine its chemical composition. This is what allowed scientists to identify the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere of this exoplanet, she explained.
WASP-96 “is about the size of Jupiter, about half the mass of Jupiter, it orbits a sun-like star but it does so about every three and a half days,” Colón said. “So it’s extremely hot, extremely close [to its star] and nothing like our planets in the solar system.
It’s just the first of many exoplanets to be observed by Webb, Colón added, which will include “other smaller planets” in our universe.
This planetary nebula, located about 2,500 light-years from Earth and often referred to as the “South Ring Nebula”, has nothing to do with planets. Instead, it represents the final stages in the life of a dying star that “has shed much of its mass in successive waves,” said Karl Gordon, mid-infrared astronomer and Webb instrument scientist.
The image on the left was taken using Webb’s near-infrared camera, while the right is from his mid-infrared instrument (MIRI). The two different wavelengths give researchers a different look at the composition of the nebula, and the mid-infrared perspective surprised them somewhat.
“We knew it was a binary star, but we didn’t really see much of the actual star that produced the nebula,” Gordon said. But thanks to MIRI, it is possible to see this bright red star and its companion star “very clearly”.
Galaxies locked in a “cosmic dance”
Stephan’s Quintet is a group of five galaxies whose gravitational forces have locked four of them in a “cosmic dance”, said Giovanna Giardino, an astronomer at the European Space Agency. Two are merging into a single galaxy, she added. Four of the galaxies are located approximately 300 million light-years from our planet, while the fifth is 40 million light-years away.
The image is actually a mosaic of nearly 1,000 separate files, making up “Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth the diameter of the Moon”. according to NASA.
Observers can see individual stars in this combination of near and mid-infrared images. The gas and dust heated by this collision of galaxies reveals the creation of new stars in this region, noted Mark McCaughrean, senior adviser for science and exploration at ESA.
“This image actually takes us from the neighboring galaxy, our own Milky Way, through these galaxies that are evolving today, to the faraway universe,” McCaughrean said. “In a way, it captures the cosmic evolution of galaxies over those 13.8 billion years.”
where the stars are born
Hundreds of never-before-seen twinkling points of light in this image of a star-forming region in the Carina Nebula, located inside the Milky Way about 7,600 light-years from Earth.
Nicknamed the “cosmic cliffs“The top of the image by NASA shows brand new, hot stars whose radiation and stellar wind are pushing down on the reddish cloud-like view of gas and dust below,” said Amber Straughn , associate project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. This gas and dust are the raw materials stars and planets need to form. According to NASA, the image shows for the first time “birth zones previously invisible stars”.
Straughn added that each bright spot in Webb’s observation is an individual star, and many likely have planets as well.
“Our sun and our planets and ultimately we were formed from the same kind of stuff that we see here,” Straughn said. “We humans are truly connected to the universe.”