What the First James Webb Space Telescope Images Tell Us About the Universe – TechCrunch

NASA on Tuesday unveiled full-color images of the $11 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), marking the first of what is sure to be many releases from the superpowered optical instrument. But even on their own, these five images mark a tremendous achievement and the culmination of a 26-year process to give humanity an even more detailed glimpse into the early Universe.

Today’s picture unveiling followed President Joe Biden’s first picture release on Monday. Dubbed “Webb’s First Deep Field,” this image showed the cluster SMACS 0723, a massive galaxy vortex that is actually just a portion of the Universe the size of “a grain of sand on your fingertip at arm’s length,” as NASA Administrator Bill Nelson put it formulated in the live stream.

Today’s revelations include a galaxy cluster and a black hole; the atmosphere of a distant planet; the epic death knell of a distant star; and a “stellar nursery” where stars are born. Thanks to JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve looked at some of these targets before, and all of them were known to astronomers. But because of the unprecedented sensitivity of the JWST instruments and their ability to see objects in the infrared spectrum, we can see these galactic shapes with more clarity than ever before.

“Oh my god, it’s working,” said Jane Rigby, Webb’s operations project scientist, upon seeing the first sharp images from the observatory. “And it’s working better than we thought.”

Signs of water and clouds on a bloated exoplanet

James Webb Space Telescope Wasp96 b

Photo credit: NASA

There are over 5,000 confirmed exoplanets—or planets orbiting a star other than our sun—in the Milky Way alone. The existence of exoplanets raises a fundamental question: are we alone in the universe? In fact, the express goal of NASA’s exoplanet program is to find signs of life in the universe; Thanks to JWST, scientists can now gather more information about these planetary bodies and hopefully learn more about whether life exists on these planets and, if so, under what conditions it can thrive.

That brings us to WASP-96 b, an exoplanet about 1,150 light-years away. It is a large gas giant, more than twice the mass of Jupiter but 1.2 times larger in diameter. In other words, it’s “swollen,” as NASA put it. It also has a short orbital period around its star and is relatively unharmed by light emitted by nearby objects, making it a prime target for JWST’s optical performance.

But that’s not a picture of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. It’s an image of the exoplanet’s transmission spectrum that may not look particularly exciting at first glance. However, this spectrum, taken with the telescope’s near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph (NIRISS), showed clear signs of water and even signs of clouds. Clouds! It’s an “indirect method” for studying exoplanets, James Webb’s deputy project scientist, Knicole Colón, explained in a news conference, but the telescope will also use direct observation methods next year.

NIRISS can also capture evidence of other molecules, such as methane and carbon dioxide. While these were not observed in WASP-96 b, they may be detectable in other exoplanets observed by JWST.

Shells of gas and dust expelled by dying stars

James Webb Space Telescope Southern Ring Nebula

Photo credit: NASA

JWST has also looked at a planetary nebula, officially dubbed NGC 3132, or the “Southern Ring Nebula,” which is giving scientists more clues about the fate of stars at the end of their life cycles. NASA showed two side-by-side images of this nebula, one in near-infrared light (left) with the telescope’s NIRCam and a second image taken with JWST’s mid-infrared instrument (right).

A planetary nebula is an area of ​​cosmic dust and gas created by dying stars. This particular one, about 2,500 light-years away, was also captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, but NASA says this updated image from JWST offers more detail of the elegant structures surrounding the binary star system.

Of the two stars (best seen in the right image), there is a fainter, dying star in the lower left and a brighter star that is at an earlier stage of life. The images also show what NASA calls “shells” surrounding the stars, each of which marks a period when the fading, dying star (the white dwarf, lower left of right image) lost some of its mass. It’s been ejecting this material for thousands of years, and NASA said its three-dimensional shape is more like two shells joined at their bottom and opening away from each other.

The cosmic dance of Stephan’s quintet

Stephan's Quintet James Webb Space Telescope

Photo credit: NASA

Stephan’s quintet, first observed by French astronomer Édouard Stephan in 1877, reveals the strange interaction of five galaxies with a level of detail never seen before. Composed of nearly 1,000 frames and 150 million pixels, this final image marks JWST’s largest image to date, measuring about one-fifth the moon’s diameter.

The picture is slightly misleading; the leftmost galaxy is actually far in the foreground, about 40 million light-years away, while the remaining four galaxy systems are about 290 million light-years away. These four galaxies are so close together, relatively speaking, that they actually interact with each other.

The image even shows a supermassive black hole at the center of the uppermost galaxy, which has about 24 million times the mass of the Sun.

I think this one might actually just be heaven

Cosmic cliffs from the James Webb Space Telescope

Photo credit: NASA

JWST also gives us a deeper look into the Carina Nebula, a region of the Milky Way some 7,600 light-years away. While we’ve been looking at Carina with Hubble, the new image reveals hundreds of new stars thanks to JWST’s ability to penetrate cosmic dust. The Carina Nebula demonstrates that star birth is not a peaceful, peaceful affair, but one characterized by highly unstable processes that can be as destructive as they are generative in some ways.

The amber landscape flowing across the bottom of the image marks the edge of the nebula’s massive, chaotic star-forming region — so massive that the highest points in this amber band, which NASA calls “Cosmic Crags,” come in at about seven light-years high. Data from JWST will give scientists more information about the star-forming process and may help to understand why certain numbers of stars form in certain regions and how stars get their mass.

Ultimately, these achievements are just the beginning. Scientists still have many questions – about exoplanets, the formation of the universe and more – and now they have a powerful new tool in their arsenal to find answers.

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