In this article:
- The Webb telescope photos released on July 13, 2022 gave us a clear look at the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster, WASP-96b exoplanet, the Southern Ring Nebula, Stephan’s Quintet, and the Carina Nebula, unveiling never before seen views of our universe.
- The telescope was launched late last year and is currently able to see from 100 to 250 million years of light following the Big Bang.
- Webb’s spectroscopy technology is expected to later allow NASA to investigate additional exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) gave us a clearer glimpse into the universe earlier this week with the release of the first few infrared images of deep space taken by the telescope.
The JWST was launched from French Guiana aboard the Ariane 5 rocket on December 25, 2021. It is capable of seeing anywhere from 100 to 250 million years of space history following the Big Bang, allowing us to see distant galaxies and planets as well as (possibly dead) stars.
After several months in space, the Webb telescope sent back images of SMACS 0723, a galaxy cluster 4.6 billion light-years away from Earth; WASP-96b, an exoplanet with water and its own atmosphere; the Southern Ring Nebula, a could of gas around a dying star; Stephan’s Quintet, a group of galaxies in the Pegasus constellation; and the Carina Nebula, a region where we can observe stars at the early stages of their formation.
The “Cosmic Cliffs” Where Stars Are Born
Arguably the most breathtaking image taken by the Webb telescope, this picture of the edge of the Carina Nebula shows us the Cosmic Cliffs at the edge of NGC 3324. The area gets its name from the mountain range-like appearance of its cosmic dust clouds which sit around a gaseous cavity, making it look like mountains set against a starry night.
That said, not even the tallest peaks on earth can compete with the Cosmic Cliffs whose tallest points are estimated to be seven lightyears high. If you’re having trouble visualizing that, consider that the distance between the Earth and the Sun is merely 0.00001581 lightyears.
Nestled in the crags of this interstellar mountain range are young stars in the early stages of their formation. While it would usually be difficult to capture a glimpse of these baby stars, the Webb telescope’s infrared capabilities allow it to see through cosmic dust clouds.
The bright “twinkles” of starlight you see here are actually protostellar jets which are believed to play a role in the heating and redistribution of stellar material during the early stages of star formation.
As the gaseous cavity near it expands into the Cosmic Cliffs, it will push unstable material to collapse and form even more stars.
While New Stars Are Born, Another Star Waves Its Final Goodbye
It takes millions of years for stars to be born and even longer for them to die, so the Webb telescope sending back photos of both events is a prime opportunity to gawk at the temporal vastness of the universe.
NGC 3132, also known as the Southern Ring Nebula, is located 2,500 lightyears from Earth. While it looks like a single cosmic structure, it is actually two stars circling each other and kicking up cosmic dust and gas around them. The dimmer star at the edge of the central cavity is the one that’s dying here.
You can imagine the rings you see around these two stars as similar to rings on a tree stump that tell you how old the tree is.
In this image, the rings are stellar material ejected from the dimmer star at different phases of its destruction. Newer rings are closer to it while older ones are further away, telling us that the star has been in its death throes for thousands of years.
NASA speculates that some of the material this star has released will be reused by new stars while others will simply dissipate into the stillness of space. One thing’s for certain, though — everyone learning about this star’s prolonged death will be dead before the star actually goes kaput.
The SMACS 0723 Galaxy Cluster Brought Its Neighbors for A Group Photo
SMACS 0723 is a cluster of galaxies located 4.6 billion lightyears away from Earth. If you were to take a telescope out to a light pollution-free area and take a long exposure image of the southern sky, you would find SMACS 0723 near the constellation Volans.
There are already numerous galaxies within the SMACS 0723 alone, but the cluster brought its intergalactic neighbors closer in front of the camera, letting us see not only it but also the galaxies behind it.
SMACS 0723 is able to do this because of its mass which generates such a large gravitational field that it creates a gravitational lens that contracts the fabric of space-time. This has helped the Webb telescope capture thousands of faint, tiny little galaxies and star clusters that would otherwise be imperceptible to the telescope.
The Webb Telescope Took Photos of A Movie Star
Human celebrities often give interviews about their early days of struggling to make it big, but Stephan’s Quintet didn’t have to lift a finger. This movie star is best known for playing the role of “The Angels” in the 1946 drama and comedy film It’s A Wonderful Life.
This high-definition image contains over 150 million pixels and was put together using nearly 1,000 separate photos because if you’re going to get a photo of a big movie star, you better capture them at their best angle.
As you can tell, Stephan’s Quintet isn’t one stellar structure but five separate galaxies. Separately they’re known as NGC 7320, NGC 7317, NGC 7318A, NGC 7318B, and NGC 7319. But only the last four galaxies can be considered “close” to each other since NGC 7320, located on the left, is only 40 million lightyears away compared to the other galaxies which are estimated to be around 290 million lightyears away from Earth.
NGC 7319, which is at the top of the group, competes for diva status, though, since it’s the only one of the five galaxies to have an active galactic nucleus, a type of supermassive black hole that chows down on galactic material and pumps out light equivalent to 40 billion suns.
The Webb Telescope Took Detailed Measurements of A Planet That (Might) Have Water
If you’ve watched a space documentary in your life, you likely already know that one of the first things astronomers look for in order to judge a planet as potentially capable of sustaining life is water.
The Webb telescope captured images of WASP-96b, an exoplanet located in the Milky Way about 1,150 lightyears from Earth, near the Phoneix constellation. The planet is said to be a gas giant but resembles none of the gas giants in our solar system. and has a temperature of 1,000°F, making it far hotter than any of our neighbors.
However, the planet has some promising properties. One of them is its reasonable distance to a Sun-like star that allows it to complete an orbit in 3 and 1/2 Earth days.
Wavelengths of light detected by the Webb telescope show that the planet likely has water. The telescope is able to see this thanks to its 270-square-foot gold-coated mirrors that gather infrared light with never before seen precision and brightness. This innovation in spectroscopy is expected to allow NASA to peep into the surface of other exoplanets in our galaxy.