NASA on Tuesday released two images the James Webb Space Telescope captured of the South Ring Nebula, a massive cloud of dust and gas 2,000 light-years from Earth.
Webb’s infrared gaze, which helps him see through the nebula’s cosmic dust, also revealed something that had never been seen before: a side view of a distant galaxy lurking behind -map of the photo.
“I made a bet that said, ‘This is part of the nebula,'” Karl Gordon, a NASA astronomer, said when the image was revealed. “I lost the bet, because we then looked more closely at the Nircam and MIRI images, and it is very clearly a frontal galaxy.” Because Webb is looking at the edge of the galaxy, it appears as a long, thin bluish line in the upper left corner of the image. Seen in this light, astronomers can study the distribution of stars in a galaxy.
Webb scientists have yet to provide additional information about the galaxy that photobombed the South Ring Nebula. “Wow. Wow. This. This near-infrared image is – wow,” project scientist Alex Lockwood said as he shared the two new images of the nebula on Tuesday.
Often described as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb was launched on December 25, 2021, after more than two decades in development. Since then, the $10 billion telescope has traveled more than 1 million miles from Earth and is now parked in a gravitationally stable orbit, collecting infrared light. By gathering infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, Webb is able to cut through cosmic dust and see far into the past, to the first 400 million years after the Big Bang.
To showcase the telescope’s capabilities and show that the telescope is finally operational, NASA released its first batch of color images. The powerful telescope captured two distinct views of the Southern Ring Nebula, both in mid-infrared and near-infrared.
The Southern Ring Nebula, or “Eight-Burst,” is a vivid shell of gas and dust blasted out into space by a dying star.
“As the star is dying, in its final throes it begins to shake. It pulsates. And in the end, poof, it comes out,” Klaus Pontoppidan, JWST project scientist at Goddard Space, told reporters. NASA Flight Center. after revealing the images. “So you see what the star did just before it created this planetary nebula. I find it fascinating because it’s like geological layers, and you can see the story of its last moments.”
The new imagery not only shows this dying star in greater detail, but also revealed a second star, gravitationally bound to it, that was previously hidden from view. Astronomers said studying once-hidden stars in detail will help them understand how they shape the cloud of gas and dust.
Over the weekend, the JWST team began its first year of normal science operations. “Today, the Webb mission is open for science business,” said Michelle Thaller, deputy director of science communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, adding, “And the best is yet to come.”
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