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Humans Advance into a Profound Study of the Universe

Nancy Atkinson
July 14, 20228:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

Carina Nebula — Image Courtesy of Space Telescope Science Institute

The first full-color images and spectra captured by the James Webb Space Telescope have now been shared with the world, allowing humanity to peer into the known universe with both higher resolution and deeper wavelengths than ever before. In a global event, NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency shared Webb’s first data, which was taken over a period of just five days.

The new data is already expanding our knowledge of the cosmic horizon. 

“This is a very special day,” said astrophysicist John Mather, from Goddard Space Flight Center. Mather is a Nobel prize winner and Chief Scientist for Webb. “I’m just so thrilled and relieved, and we are all so proud.  We are now going to see what happened just after the Big Bang, how the first galaxies and black holes formed and grew, and more. This new observatory is a time machine and I’m so happy to be part of it.”

The five new images and data sets reveal the deepest image of the universe ever taken, the spectrum of an exoplanet’s light – which provides clues to its composition -- a gorgeous stellar birthplace, a stunning nebula surrounding a dying star, and a group of closely interacting galaxies. All these images are a glimpse of what Webb will continue to reveal over its expected 20-year mission. 

Deep Field — Image Courtesy of Space Telescope Science Institute

This first image from Webb, seen above, was revealed by the White House on Monday. It is the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date, showing thousands of galaxies, some over 13 billion years old, from the earliest days of the cosmos. In homage to the previous deepest images ever taken, known as Hubble Deep Field images, Webb’s First Deep Field shows thousands of galaxies where other observatories showed just a few or none. 

“We can’t take blank sky images with this observatory,”

said JWST Operations Project Scientists Jane Rigby, at the July 12 briefing. “Everywhere we look there are galaxies just absolutely everywhere. And we’re seeing so much detail, we’re seeing these galaxies in a way we’ve never seen before. This is what we built the telescope to do.”

Rigby said Webb was able to gather spectra on some of the galaxies that showed how they looked 13.1 billion years ago.

The galaxy cluster, called SMACS 0723, is so massive that it bends the very fabric of space-time itself, creating a gravitational lens that allows us to see even more distant galaxies, including the faintest objects ever observed in infrared. 

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson explained that this image covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. “It’s just a tiny sliver of the vast universe,” he said. 

While Hubble took an image of this same galaxy cluster, the difference in the new Webb image in regards to resolution and the number of visible galaxies is absolutely astounding. While the Hubble image was a 10-day exposure, Webb’s was just 12 hours.

The second data set from Webb showed the wiggly lines of spectral data, representing the composition of a distant exoplanet’s atmosphere.  WASP-96b is a hot gas giant about half the size of Jupiter. This exoplanet orbits a star about 1,150 light-years away, every 3.4 days.

“Webb is an infrared observatory, and infrared is great for gathering spectrum,” explained Knicole Collon, JWST deputy project scientist for exoplanets. “The spectrum is like breaking the light into a rainbow, and each of those colors can tell us something.”  

Image Courtesy of Space Telescope Science Institute

Webb observed the transit of WASP-96b as it passed in front of its host star. As the starlight filtered through the atmosphere, the telescope's instruments measured the wavelengths of light, light that is full of information to help understand the complicated chemistry of this planet's atmosphere.

Most enticingly, the spectrum indicates the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere. 

“These bumps and wiggles reveal the telltale signature of water vapor,” Collon said, “as well as evidence of clouds and hazes. While this hot, giant planet is nothing like our solar system’s planets, that’s ok. This is just the beginning, Webb’s observation demonstrates the telescope’s ability to analyze atmospheres of planets hundreds of light-years away, and we’ll be able to look at smaller planets soon.” 

In the coming days and months, Webb will also be looking at planets in our own solar system from Mars outward as well as asteroids and comets. 

Southern Ring Nebula — Image Courtesy of Space Telescope Science Institute

The third new image features the Southern Ring Nebula, a planetary nebula 2,000 light-years away. This is a well-studied nebula, and making this an early target for study will allow scientists to see how Webb’s new data will help inform the previous data from other observatories. 

This planetary nebula shows the very late state of a sun-like star after it has died, leaving a white dwarf star near the center. The surrounding nebula entails complex and delicate layers of dust surrounding the white dwarf. Astronomer Karl Gordon explained the new near-infrared image from Webb shows incredible detail of this nebula, with the dying star producing waves that create a ‘foamy’ appearance (in orange) revealing how the star lights up the gas and dust in the nebula.

The blue haze is hot ionized gas, heated by the leftover core of the hot star. Something never seen before are rays of light coming from gaps in the inner nebula, coming from the central star’s light to come out and light up the nebula. 

“We’re seeing a different kind of physics,”

Gordon said. “The surprise for us in this new image is that even though we knew this was a binary star system, we could never see both stars in previous images. Now we can see both stars very clearly.”

Another newly revealed ‘Easter Egg’ for the scientists is the narrow filament of light near the top. It is actually a background, edge-on galaxy, which has never been seen before.  

Stephan's Quintent — Image Courtesy of Space Telescope Science Institute

The fourth image is a wondrous view of Stephan's Quintet, a group of five very interesting galaxies, doing a delicate merging dance. Stephan’s Quintet lies about 300 million lightyears from Earth, and again, is a well-studied group of galaxies. But new details from Webb reveal how the interactions between galaxies are driving star formation, and the new observatory’s ability to see through dust unveil a previously unseen population of older stars.

“If you zoom in, you can see gas and dust being heated up in the collisions, where new stars are being born today,” said Mark McCaughrean, the European Space Agency’s Senior Advisor for Science & Exploration and part of JWST’s Science Working Group. McCaughrean explained how the new image reveals the cosmic evolution of galaxies, along with several objects never seen before: new bright blue galaxies and newly formed active black holes, visible only because of the stars and dust swirling around them. 

“With Webb, we can see in thousands of wavelength channels to understand the composition of the gas, the velocities, and the temperatures,” McCaughrean said. “This shows the power of this telescope. And to paraphrase a famous rock star, we are ready to turn this telescope up to 11.”  

The final image shows a stunning vista of the Carina Nebula, one of the largest nebulas observed, and it contains a variety of stars at different stages of formation. With the new image from Webb, scientists are seeing brand new stars that were previously hidden from view. 

“There is so much going on in this image, it’s so beautiful!” said Amber Straughn, Deputy Project Scientist for JWST Communications. “There’s a sense of depth and texture from this new data.”

The Carina Nebula is a nearby star-forming region about 7600 lightyears away. Straughn said there are hundreds of new stars that have never been visible before, along with bubbles, cavities, and jets from all the newborn stars. Every dot of light in an individual star is not unlike our sun, and many of them likely have planets. Straughn added that the image's data is so rich, that scientists haven’t had the chance to unpack most of it yet.

“We were formed out of this same stuff,” Straughn said,

“we are connected to the universe. We saw amazing things in this nebula with Hubble but in a different kind of light. When you zoom into this new image you can see so much more. I’m excited to see what these two amazing observatories can do in tandem with each other.” 

Several of the scientists in the briefing noted how this new mission has been in the works for 30 years, and that it has taken thousands of people and multiple space agencies to make this moment a reality. 

“It is bigger than any one of us,” said the event’s host, astronomer Michele Thaller,“ and it truly takes a planet to accomplish this. The Webb mission is truly about the people.” 

As for the data, earlier this week, Mark McCaughrean said that as lovely as Webb’s first science views are, remember that they’re from only five days of data.

“Every five days, we’ll be getting the same amount again,” he said. “They’re just the pictures painted on the dam. And the dam is about to break.” 

Nancy Atkinson
July 14, 20228:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)