TThis week, NASA revealed for the first time five images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Together, these images – from the birth of stars to one of the deepest glimpses of deep space – offer some of the most detailed glimpses into the beginnings of our universe ever seen.
Here’s what each image shows and why it helps us better understand outer space:
Webb’s cameras can see deep into space and far into the past. Webb has the ability to be 13.6 billion light-years away — that’s the furthest distance we’ve ever seen into space. This image of the cluster of galaxies known as SMACS 0723 contains thousands of galaxies, some as far as 13.1 billion light-years away. (A single light-year is nearly 6 trillion miles.) Because light takes a long time to travel that far, we see galaxies not as they look today, but as they looked 13.1 billion years ago. The bluer galaxies are more mature and contain many stars and little dust. The redder galaxies contain more dust from which stars are still forming.
Stars, like the rest of us, are born, age and die, and the Carina Nebula, located 7,600 light-years from Earth, is one of the great stellar nurseries of the cosmos. The cliff-like formations are massive pinnacles of dust and gas, some as tall as seven light-years. The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged Carina before, but never in the dazzling detail Webb provided. Young stars are born in this turbulent region, merging from the surrounding matter. As the stars form, they give off tremendous amounts of energy that help shape the entire nebula. Red dots in the image are jets of energy emitted by the growing young stars.
Webb captured the most magnificent picture ever taken of Stephan’s Quintet, a cluster of five galaxies first seen by astronomers in 1877. The quintet is actually more of a quartet, with the leftmost foreground galaxy 40 million light-years from Earth and the other four more distant, 290 million light-years away. The four densely packed galaxies interact, with dust and stars being pulled from one to the other by gravity, mixing their material. Clusters of young stars appear as bright twinkles in the image, and thousands of more distant galaxies can be seen in the background.
Southern Ring Nebula
A dying star can be a surprisingly beautiful thing – and two such stars can be twice as striking. Webb captured an image of this pair of older stars orbiting about 2,500 light-years from Earth. As stars reach the end of their lives, they emit gas and dust that form the nebulae, or clouds, that surround them. In addition to imaging the Southern Ring Nebula, Webb has the ability to analyze its chemistry and understand more about how stars shed their matter as they die. The brighter of the two stars is younger than the other and has not yet emitted as much material. As the stars orbit each other, they effectively agitate the gas nebula and give it its characteristic shape.
WASP 96 b
A scientific graphic isn’t nearly as striking as a cosmic photograph, but in this case the graphic has a story to tell. Webb studies exoplanets — or planets orbiting other stars — specifically the composition of their atmospheres. As the planet passes in front of its parent star, Webb can analyze starlight streaming through the atmosphere, looking for the chemical fingerprints of biology. In this graphic, Webb analyzed the atmosphere of WASP 96 B, a Jupiter-like planet located 1,150 light-years from Earth. Webb didn’t find any biology, but as the graphic shows, it found plenty of water in the planet’s clouds — and water is the key ingredient for life as we know it.
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