What are the right words to describe the view of a dying star?
“Wow. Wow. This. This near infrared image is … wow,” Alex Lockwood, a James Webb Space Telescope project scientist, managed to utter as she and astronomer Karl Gordon took in one of the very first images released to the public during a NASA broadcast Tuesday.
Four new breathtaking images, showing off far-away galaxies in radiant color, were unveiled as the telescope’s inaugural revelations, along with a picture shared Monday that looks deeper into space than ever before. Webb is the largest, most powerful observatory ever sent into space, and its first five images represent the mission’s transition from getting up and running to answering some of the most pressing questions in science.
“Today, the Webb mission is open for scientific business,” Michelle Thaller, an astronomer and assistant director for Science Communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said during the briefing “And this is just the beginning. The best is yet to come.”
“When you bring these new capabilities online that give you this massive improvement in performance, game-changing improvement, you never really quite know what you’re going to find,” Mark Clampin, director of science and Exploration at the Goddard Space Flight Center, told the PBS NewsHour. “We know why we built Webb and we have these programs that we’re now going to undertake. But we also know we’re going to find things 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, plus what they mean for this new dawn in astronomy.
A tiny stretch of universe ‘teeming with galaxies’
Previewed early by President Joe Biden in a Monday press conference, Webb’s first “deep field” image is “teeming with galaxies,” said Jane Rigby, operations project scientist for the JWST, during the briefing. These distant galaxies appear in the image as they were billions of years ago.
READ MORE: Here’s 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 around two weeks. But Webb’s first image was taken “before breakfast.”
“The amazing thing about Webb is the rate at which we can churn out discoveries,” Rigby said, adding that the images unveiled during the broadcast represent a week’s worth of work, a rate which will continue over the course 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 away from Earth. The image above represents the very first spectrum of an exoplanet to be taken by Webb, whose observations cover new wavelengths of infrared light and gives astronomers more detail than ever before, said Knicole Colón, JWST’s deputy project scientist for exoplanet science.
Spectroscopy takes starlight that has filtered through a planet’s atmosphere and analyzes that light to determine its chemical composition. That’s what allowed scientists to identify the presence of water vapor within the atmosphere of this exoplanet, she explained.
WASP-96 “is about the size of Jupiter, about half the mass of Jupiter, it orbits around a sun-like star but it does it about every three and a half days,” Colón said. “So it’s extremely hot, extremely close [to its star] and nothing like our solar system planets.”
It’s just the first of many exoplanets that will be observed by Webb, Colón added, which will include “further, smaller planets” within our universe.
This planetary nebula, located around 2,500 light-years away from Earth and often referred to as the “Southern Ring Nebula,” doesn’t actually have anything to do with planets. Instead, it represents the final life stages of a dying star that’s “expelled a large fraction of its mass in successive waves,” said Karl Gordon, mid-infrared astronomer and Webb instrument scientist.
The left image was taken using Webb’s near-infrared camera, while the right is from its mid-infrared instrument (MIRI). The two different wavelengths give researchers different looks at what the nebula is composed of, and the mid-infrared perspective offered them somewhat of a surprise.
“We knew this 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’s possible to see that red, glowing 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 with the European Space Agency. Two are in the process of merging into a single galaxy, she added. Four of the galaxies are located about 300 million light-years from our planet, while the fifth is 40 million light-years away.
The picture is actually a mosaic of almost 1,000 separate files, making up “Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter,” according to NASA.
Observers can see individual stars in this combination of near- and mid-infrared images. The gas and dust being heated by that galaxy collision reveals the creation of new stars within that region, noted Mark McCaughrean, a senior advisor for science and exploration at ESA.
“This image actually takes us from the nearby galaxy, our own Milky Way, through these galaxies which are evolving today, all the way to the distant universe,” McCaughrean said. “In a way, it captures cosmic evolution of galaxies over those 13.8 billion years.”
Where stars are born
Hundreds of glittering, never-before-seen points of light checker this image of a star-forming region within the Carina Nebula, located inside the Milky Way about 7,600 light years away from Earth.
Dubbed the “Cosmic Cliffs” by NASA, the top of the image shows brand new hot stars whose radiation and stellar wind is pushing down on the reddish, cloud-like vista composed of gas and dust below, said Amber Straughn, deputy project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. That gas and dust are the raw materials stars and planets need in order to form. According to NASA, the image shows for the first time “previously invisible areas of star birth.”
Straughn added that each glowing dot within Webb’s observation is an individual star, and many also likely have planets.
“Our sun and our planets and ultimately us were formed out of the same kind of stuff that we see here,” Straughn said. “We humans really are connected to the universe.”