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Webb and the Great Cosmic Question Mark

Nancy Atkinson
September 5, 20239:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

Now well into its second year of scientific operations, the James Webb Space Telescope is consistently providing stunning, jaw-dropping images.

With the team’s goal of publicly releasing at least one new image every week, there is now a wealth of JWST pictures available to peruse and enjoy.

“The James Webb Space Telescope has already delivered upon its promise to unfold the universe, gifting humanity with a breathtaking treasure trove of images and science that will last for decades,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement honoring the telescope’s first year of work. 

But more importantly, the new telescope’s data has provided new and intricate details of so many different objects in the universe: stars, galaxies, black holes, and even distant extrasolar planets — those outside our solar system. With JWST’s crisp infrared spectra, more detailed information can be garnered than ever before. 

Already, the JWST has confirmed the distances of some of the farthest galaxies ever observed, discovered the earliest, most distant supermassive black holes, and determined the compositions of planetary atmospheres with more detail than previous telescopes. JWST has also revealed the chemical makeup of stellar nurseries and protoplanetary disks, detecting water, organic carbon-containing molecules, and more. Already, hundreds of scientific papers have been published with JWST data, some answering longstanding questions — while others have raised new questions.  

Let’s take a look at just a few recent images and what we’ve learned compared to previous telescopes:

Here’s an eerie new look at a familiar object: The Pillars of Creation. Made famous by the 1995 image from the Hubble Space Telescope, the pillars are just a small region within the massive Eagle Nebula, which lies 6,500 light-years away. With its enhanced infrared vision, JWST has been able to peer more deeply into the gas and dust of this iconic region of space.  This image combines data from two cameras aboard JWST, the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). With this combined data, more colorful stars show up within and behind the dust and gas. Near-infrared light reveals thousands of newly formed stars (look for bright orange spheres that lie just outside the dusty pillars), while the mid-infrared light shows more dust — especially above the pillars, which can be seen in orange.

But within the pillars, newly formed stars can be seen, especially at the top edges of the pillars, which show up in a deep red.  Scientists say these stars are quite active, and they periodically send out supersonic jets that can interact within clouds of material, creating almost lava-like regions within the pillars. These regions in the pillars have never been seen before in this kind of detail. These young stars are estimated to be only a few hundred thousand years old and will continue to form for millions of years.

In December of 2022 when we talked with Mark McCaughrean, who is the European Space Agency’s Senior Advisor for Science & Exploration and part of JWST’s Science Working Group, he had just received the raw data from JWST of an object he has long been interested in, the Herbig-Haro 211 system. We now have the stunning processed image. 

The Herbig-Haro 211 system is a still-forming protostar, and like the new stars in the Pillars of Creation, it is spouting supersonic jets. Herbig-Haro 211 is one of the youngest stars known to scientists, thought to be only a few thousand years old.

Since new stars are often enshrouded in gas and dust, it makes it difficult for them to be seen from Earth. Herbig-Haro 211 is closer than the Pillars of Creation (about 1,000 light-years away from Earth), so JWST can see more details of these jets. This image provides a glimpse at five to ten times higher resolution than any previous observations of Herbig-Haro 211. The jets look somewhat like lightsabers and stretch for several light-years. Combining data from NIRCam and the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) reveals an array of bow shocks along the jets, and provides unprecedented insights into protostellar dynamics, according to the scientists. 

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In a new paper published in Nature, McCaughrean and lead author Tom Ray said that the JWST data shows that the jets primarily consist of slowly moving molecular beams, as opposed to more mature stars that emit jets of atoms and ions. This is contrary to what astronomers thought before, and Ray said that how such beams are produced without the added ingredients of atoms and ions is currently a mystery. 

While JWST can peer into the cosmic depths, it can also look closer to home. This new image of Saturn has the iconic rings glowing in infrared like never before. Saturn itself appears extremely dark at this infrared wavelength because the methane gas in the atmosphere absorbs almost all the sunlight falling on the atmosphere. However, the icy and rocky rings stay relatively bright. The particles in the rings range in size from smaller than a grain of sand to some that are as large as mountains on Earth. This image was taken with the NIRCam instrument.

This capture is part of a series of very deep exposures of Saturn, designed to test the telescope’s capacity to detect faint moons around the planet, contrasting with its bright rings. While details of the rings can be seen, look closer to see several of the planet’s moons: Dione, Enceladus, and Tethys. Scientists are looking to get more details on the orbital characteristics of the known and newly discovered moons which could help put together a more complete picture of the current Saturn system.

Even though Saturn appears dark here, the underlying data provides some surprising and unexpected details. This is the first time that the planet’s atmosphere has been seen with such clarity at this wavelength (3.23 microns), which shows less of the usual stripes and more of the aerosols high above the clouds, which astronomers are still studying. They said this new image of Saturn is just a hint at what JWST will add to Saturn’s story in the coming years as the science team delves deep into the data. 

Perhaps you won’t recognize this object, as the new JWST image of the Ring Nebula looks almost nothing like pictures from other telescopes.

“When we first saw the images, we were stunned by the amount of detail in them,” said astronomer Roger Wesson from Cardiff University, in a recent NASA blog post. “The bright ring that gives the nebula its name is composed of about 20,000 individual clumps of dense molecular hydrogen gas.”

The MIRI instrument reveals approximately ten arcs in the outer regions of the nebulae’s ring. Outside the ring are strange “spikes” pointing directly away from the central star, which show up prominently here, but were only faintly visible in Hubble Space Telescope images.

“These arcs must have formed about every 280 years as the central star was shedding its outer layers,” Wesson said. “These rings suggest that there must be a companion star in the system, orbiting about as far away from the central star as Pluto does from our Sun. As the dying star was throwing off its atmosphere, the companion star shaped the outflow and sculpted it. No previous telescope had the sensitivity and the spatial resolution to uncover this subtle effect.”

The MIRI image also provides a completely different view of the nebula’s central region. Here it looks like a pair of red lips, as opposed to the blue ocean-like view in this Hubble image, below:

Perhaps the strangest image we’ve seen from JWST comes in the form of a question … a question mark, to be exact. Hidden within a much larger composite image from the telescope showing a tightly bound pair of young stars known as Herbig-Haro 46/47, is a strange configuration that looks like a question mark in space. Really.

"The aliens know we've found them and now they're just messing with us," one user on Reddit wrote.

So, what exactly is this question mark? Astronomers don’t yet know (and they are obviously more focused on the primary target of the image) but several theories have emerged.

Perhaps it is a pair of interacting galaxies that just happens to form a question mark shape because of the tidal interaction between the galaxies? or it could be just a chance alignment of 2 or 3 galaxies as seen from the telescope’s vantage point.

But finding this object makes us wonder about what other unusual objects are still out there, just waiting to be discovered with the James Webb Space Telescope.

Nancy Atkinson
September 5, 20239:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)