NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has released its first full-resolution images in a preview of the science soon to come. These five images, showing a deep-field view of the cosmos, two sparkling nebulae, a group of doomed galaxies and the chemical composition of a giant exoplanet, are the culmination of decades of work by scientists and engineers – and they are just the beginning.
After its launch in December 2021, JWST beamed down its very first images in February, but those were part of the telescope testing process and they didn’t yet demonstrate JWST’s full power. These science images do.
One of the brightest nebulae in the sky, the Carina Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and nascent stars. It is about 7600 light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Carina. The top part of the image, seen above, is full of huge, hot stars, shining onto the stellar nursery at the bottom of the picture.
“Today, for the first time, we’re seeing brand new stars that were completely hidden from our view,” said JWST scientist Amber Straughn. “We see examples of bubbles and cavities and jets that are being blown out by these newborn stars. We even see some galaxies sort of lurking in the background up here. We see examples of structures that honestly we don’t even know what they are. The data is just so rich.”
Southern Ring Nebula
This cloud of dust and gas surrounding two stars is called the Southern Ring Nebula, or the Eight-Burst Nebula. Both of these images show the nebula in infrared, but the one on the right was taken using longer wavelengths than the one on the left.
The Southern Ring Nebula is about 2000 light years from Earth and nearly half a light year across. The bright cloud that makes up the ring came from the outer layers of one of the stars at the centre of the nebula, which expanded when it reached the end of its lifetime and transformed from a sun-like star into a white dwarf. The image on the right has revealed the two stars in extraordinary detail, showing that the dimmer, redder star – the one that spawned this nebula – is surrounded by dust, whereas the brighter star may puff out its own nebula in the future.
These five galaxies, called Stephan’s Quintet, are about 290 million light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Pegasus. Four of the five are engaged in a deadly game of chicken, swooping past one another closer and closer until, someday in the distant cosmic future, they will most likely smash together and merge. We have seen them before – in fact, the group of four is the most thoroughly studied compact group of galaxies – but this image is far more detailed than any of the previous ones. It is a mosaic of almost 1000 pictures, making it JWST’s biggest image to date.
That detail allows us to see the area around a supermassive black hole, the brightest part of the top galaxy. “We cannot see the black hole itself, but we see the material sort of swirling around and being swallowed by this cosmic monster,” said JWST researcher Giovanna Giardino. This area is 40 billion times as bright as the sun, she said.
The JWST deep field
Released on 11 July, “Webb’s First Deep Field” is the deepest image of the cosmos ever taken. JWST was designed to take such images to help us understand the first galaxies. The faint galaxies in this image include the most distant galaxy whose composition we have ever been able to measure.
“The previous record-holder, the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, was two weeks of continuous work with Hubble,” said JWST scientist Jane Rigby during the image release event at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “With Webb, we took that image before breakfast… We’re going to be doing discoveries like this every week.”
This image showcases one of JWST’s other key capabilities: examining the light shining through the atmosphere of an exoplanet. It is the spectrum of light coming from a planet called WASP-96b, a gas giant about 1150 light years from Earth. Its mass is about half that of Jupiter, but it is much closer to its star – and therefore far hotter – orbiting once every 3.4 Earth days while Jupiter takes 12 Earth years to circle the sun. This particular planet has almost no clouds whatsoever, making it far easier to examine the chemistry of its atmosphere without anything to block the starlight shining through.
“It’s extremely hot, extremely close in, nothing like our solar system planets – but it’s OK,” said Knicole Colon at Goddard. “This is just the beginning. We’re going to start pushing down to further, smaller planets and being able to take measurements just like this.”
Now that we have the first full-resolution images from JWST, the next step is getting more detailed data so that researchers can start digging into the science. This includes not only the data behind these images, but even deeper observations of the cosmos, from the most distant stars to a bevy of alien worlds to asteroids in our own solar system.
“This day gives a new meaning to ‘as far as the eye can see’,” said US Congressman Steny Hoyer during the image release event. Over the coming months and years, JWST is expected to continue pushing the limits of astronomy. It has enough fuel to continue observing for at least 20 years, and the release of these new images marks the beginning of year one.
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