What the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope tell us about the universe – TechCrunch

NASA unveiled color images of the $11 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Tuesday, marking the first of what is sure to be many iterations of the super-powerful optical instrument. But even taken by themselves, these five images mark a massive achievement and the culmination of a 26-year process to give humanity an even more detailed look at the early universe.

The image revealed today followed President Joe Biden’s initial release of the image on Monday. This photo, named “Webb’s First Deep Field”, showed cluster SMACS 0723, a vast swirl of galaxies that is really just a slice of the universe the size of a “grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length,” as NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on the livestream.

Today’s revelations include a galactic cluster and a black hole; the atmosphere of a distant planet; the epic toll of a distant star; and a “stellar nursery” where stars are born. We’ve looked at some of these targets before, thanks to JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, and all of them were known to astronomers. But thanks to the unprecedented sensitivity of JWST’s instruments and its ability to see objects in the infrared spectrum, we are able to see these galactic forms with greater clarity than ever before.

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

Signs of water and clouds on a puffy exoplanet

Picture credits: Nasa

There are more than 5,000 confirmed exoplanets — or planets that orbit 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? Indeed, the explicit goal of NASA’s Exoplanet program is to find signs of life in the universe; now, thanks to the JWST, scientists can capture 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.

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

But this is not an image of the atmosphere of an exoplanet. It’s an image of an exoplanet’s transmission spectrum, which might be less than exciting at first glance. However, this spectrum, captured with the telescope’s Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), showed unambiguous signs of water and even evidence of clouds. Clouds! This is an “indirect method” for studying exoplanets, Knicole Colón, assistant project scientist James Webb, explained during a press briefing, but the telescope will also use direct observation methods during next year.

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

Shells of gas and dust expelled by dying stars

James Webb Space Telescope South Ring Nebula

Picture credits: Nasa

JWST also examined a planetary nebula officially called NGC 3132, or the “South Ring Nebula,” providing scientists with 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 taken in near-infrared (left) with the oscilloscope’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 generated by dying stars. This one, located 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 on the sleek structures surrounding the binary star system.

Of the two stars (best seen in the right image), there is a dimmer, dying star located in the lower left and a brighter star that is at an early stage in its life. The images also show what NASA calls “shells” surrounding the stars, each of which marks a period when the dull, dying star (the white dwarf in the lower left in the right image) lost a part of its mass. It has been expelling this material for thousands of years, and NASA said its three-dimensional shape is more like two bowls placed together at their bottom, opening relative to each other.

The cosmic dance of Stephan’s Quintet

stephan's quintet the james webb space telescope

Picture credits: Nasa

Stephan’s Quintet, first observed by French astronomer Édouard Stephan in 1877, shows the strange interaction of five galaxies in a degree of detail never seen before. This final image is made up of nearly 1,000 individual images and 150 million pixels, and it marks JWST’s largest image to date, being roughly 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 from us, while the remaining four galaxy systems are about 290 million light-years away. These four galaxies are clustered so close together, relatively speaking, that they actually interact with each other.

The image even reveals a supermassive black hole, located at the center of the highest galaxy, which is 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

Picture credits: Nasa

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

The amber landscape that crosses 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 band of amber, which NASA calls the ” ‘cosmic cliffs’, are around seven light years high. The JWST data will give scientists more insight into the process of star formation and could help understand why certain numbers of stars form in certain regions, as well as how stars end up with the mass that they have.

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

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