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In pictures: The James Webb telescope’s first images

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In pictures: The James Webb telescope’s first images

“Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula (NIRCam Image). What looks much like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

The James Webb telescope has released its first images, providing a spectacular glimpse into the history of the universe.

In a sneak peek, NASA released the first image from its James Webb Space Telescope – the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. The image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 overflowing with detail.

“Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared – have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. This slice of the vast universe is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground,” NASA announced. 

Thousands of small galaxies appear across this view. Their colors vary. Some are shades of orange, while others are white. Most appear as fuzzy ovals, but a few have distinct spiral arms. In front of the galaxies are several foreground stars. Most appear blue, and the bright stars have diffraction spikes, forming an eight-pointed star shape. There are also many thin, long, orange arcs that curve around the center of the image.
Webb’s First Deep Field (NIRCam Image). Thousands of galaxies flood this near-infrared image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. High-resolution imaging from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope combined with a natural effect known as gravitational lensing made this finely detailed image possible. ebb’s highly detailed image may help researchers measure the ages and masses of star clusters within these distant galaxies. This might lead to more accurate models of galaxies that existed at cosmic “spring,” when galaxies were sprouting tiny “buds” of new growth, actively interacting and merging, and had yet to develop into larger spirals. Ultimately, Webb’s upcoming observations will help astronomers better understand how galaxies form and grow in the early universe. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

The images come just over six months after the telescope was launched on 25 December 2021 from Europe’s Spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana. 

The James Webb Space Telescope is the largest telescope that has ever been placed in space – its sunshield alone is the size of a tennis court – and it is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble telescope. 

Webb is an infrared telescope, with a main imager that can detect light from both the earliest stars and galaxies in the process of formation, as well as young stars. 

Its mission is to look back in time at the universe, and astronomers believe the results will “fundamentally alter our understanding” of it, NASA said.

“It will unfold the universe, transforming how we think about the night sky and our place in the cosmos. The telescope lets us look back to see a period of cosmic history never before observed. Webb can peer into the past because telescopes show us how things were – not how they are right now. 

“It can also explore distant galaxies, farther away than any we’ve seen before.”

And now, for the first time, humanity has a front-row seat to the history of the universe, allowing us to gaze upon the extraordinary, spectacular worlds beyond our planet. 

This frame is split down the middle. Webb’s mid-infrared image is shown at left, and Webb’s nearinfrared image on the right. The mid-infrared image appears much darker, with many fewer points of light. Stars have very short diffraction spikes. Galaxies and stars also appear in a range of colors, including blue, green, yellow, and red. The near-infrared image appears busier, with many more points of light. Thousands of galaxies and stars appear all across the view. They are sharper and more distinct than what is seen in the mid-infrared view. Some galaxies are shades of orange, while others are white. Most stars appear blue with long diffraction spikes, forming an eight-pointed star shapes. There are also many thin, long, orange arcs that curve around the center of the image.
Webb’s First Deep Field (MIRI and NIRCam Images Side by Side). Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is a technicolour landscape when viewed in mid-infrared light by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Compared to Webb’s near-infrared image at the right, the galaxies and stars are awash in new colours. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Two views of the same object, the Southern Ring Nebula, are shown side by side. Both feature black backgrounds speckled with tiny bright stars and distant galaxies. Both show the planetary nebula as a misshapen oval that is slightly angled from top left to bottom right. At left, the near-infrared image shows a bright white star with eight long diffraction spikes at the center. A large transparent teal oval surrounds the central star. Several red shells surround the teal oval, extending almost to the edges of the image. The red layers, which are wavy overall, look like they have very thin straight lines piercing through them. At right, the mid-infrared image shows two stars at the center very close to one another. The one at left is red, the one at right is light blue. The blue star has tiny diffraction spikes around it. A large translucent red oval surrounds the central stars. From the red oval, shells extend in a mix of colors.
Southern Ring Nebula (NIRCam and MIRI Images Side by Side). This side-by-side comparison shows observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light, at left, and mid-infrared light, at right, from NASA’s Webb Telescope. The images look very different because NIRCam and MIRI collect different wavelengths of light. NIRCam observes near-infrared light, which is closer to the visible wavelengths our eyes detect. MIRI goes farther into the infrared, picking up mid-infrared wavelengths. The second star appears more clearly in the MIRI image because this instrument can see the gleaming dust around it. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Colorful image of near-infrared light from a glowing cloud with a distorted ring-like shape, illuminated from within by a bright central star. The Southern Ring Nebula is a large, semi-transparent oval that is slightly angled from top left to bottom right. A bright white star appears at the center of this image. A large transparent teal oval surrounds the central star. Several red shells surround the teal oval, extending almost to the edges of the image. The shells become a deeper red with distance from the center. The bright central star has eight diffraction spikes. Behind the gaseous teal layers are deeper orange layers that are arranged like threads in a complex weaving. The red layers, which are wavy overall, look like they have very thin straight lines piercing through them, which are holes where light from a central star is traveling. The background of the image is black and speckled with tiny bright stars and distant galaxies.
Southern Ring Nebula (NIRCam Image). The bright star at the centre of NGC 3132, while prominent when viewed by NASA’s Webb Telescope in near-infrared light, plays a supporting role in sculpting the surrounding nebula. A second star, barely visible at the lower left along one of the bright star’s diffraction spikes, is the nebula’s source. It has ejected at least eight layers of gas and dust over thousands of years. This is not only a crisp image of a planetary nebula – it also shows us objects in the vast distances of space behind it. The transparent red sections of the planetary nebula – and all the areas outside it – are filled with distant galaxies. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
The Southern Ring Nebula is a large, semi-transparent oval that is slightly angled from top left to bottom right. Two stars appear at the center very close to one another. The one at left is red, the one at right is light blue. The blue star has tiny diffraction spikes around it. A large translucent red oval surrounds the central stars. From the red oval, shells extend in a mix of colors. The shells that extend to the left and right are red and the shells that extend to the top and bottom are teal. The shells appear to have a filamentous pattern, similar to the surface of a cut citrus fruit. The shells darken in color with distance from the center. The background is black and speckled with tiny bright stars and distant galaxies in a range of colors.
Southern Ring Nebula (MIRI Image). NASA’s Webb Telescope has revealed the cloak of dust around the second star, shown at left in red, at the centre of the Southern Ring Nebula for the first time. It is a hot, dense white dwarf star. As it transformed into a white dwarf, the star periodically ejected mass – the shells of material you see here. As if on repeat, it contracted, heated up – and then, unable to push out more material, pulsated. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
A star field is speckled across the image. The stars are of many sizes. They range from small, faint points of light to larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved stars with 8-point diffraction spikes. The stars vary in color, the majority of which have a blue or orange hue. The upper-right portion of the image has wispy, translucent, cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula running along the bottom portion of the image. The cloudy formation shown across the bottom varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Many of the larger stars shine brightly along the edges of the nebula’s cloud-like structure.
“Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula (NIRCam and MIRI Composite Image). Astronomers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope combined the capabilities of the telescope’s two cameras to create a never-before-seen view of a star-forming region in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), this combined image reveals previously invisible areas of star birth. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Image of a group of five galaxies that appear close to each other in the sky: two in the middle, one toward the top, one to the upper left, and one toward the bottom. Four of the five appear to be touching. One is somewhat separated. In the image, the galaxies are large relative to the hundreds of much smaller (more distant) galaxies in the background. All five galaxies have bright white cores. Each has a slightly different size, shape, structure, and coloring. Scattered across the image, in front of the galaxies are number of foreground stars with diffraction spikes: bright white points, each with eight bright lines radiating out from the center.
Stephan’s Quintet (NIRCam and MIRI Composite Image). With its powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, Webb shows never-before-seen details in this galaxy group. Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image. Sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars are being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions. Most dramatically, Webb’s MIRI instrument captures huge shock waves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, smashes through the cluster. These regions surrounding the central pair of galaxies are shown in the colours red and gold. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Image of a group of four galaxies that appear close to each other in the sky: two in the middle, one toward the top, one to the upper left. In addition, there is a large bright patch toward the right. The galaxy at the top has a bright reddish core and is surrounded by swirls of blue and purple filaments that travel inward to its bright core, also highlighted by eight diffraction spikes. The galaxy on the left is a mass of purple gas surrounding a dim red core. The mass is made from small clumps, each slightly illuminated. The two galaxies in the middle have two bright, blue cores, surrounded by purple wisps. The bright patch to the right is made from clouds of blue and purple, strung together in filament-like bands. Surrounding the galaxies is a background peppered with red, blue, and purple dots, which are distant stars and galaxies.
Stephan’s Quintet (MIRI Image). With its powerful, mid-infrared vision, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) shows never-before-seen details of Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies. MIRI pierced through dust-enshrouded regions to reveal huge shock waves and tidal tails, gas and stars stripped from the outer regions of the galaxies by interactions. It also unveiled hidden areas of star formation. The new information from MIRI provides invaluable insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe. Stephan’s Quintet’s topmost galaxy – NGC 7319 – harbours a supermassive black hole 24 million times the mass of the Sun. It is actively accreting material and puts out light energy equivalent to 40 billion Suns. MIRI sees through the dust surrounding this black hole to unveil the strikingly bright active galactic nucleus. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Infographic titled “Hot Gas Giant Exoplanet WASP-96 b Transit Light Curve, NIRISS Single-Object Slitless Spectroscopy.” At the top of the infographic is a diagram showing a planet transiting (moving in front of) its star. Below the diagram is a graph showing the change in relative brightness of the star-planet system between 12:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 21, 2022. The diagram and graph are aligned vertically to show the relationship between the geometry of the star-planet system as the planet orbits, and the measurements on the graph. The infographic shows that the brightness of the system remains steady until the planet begins to transit the star. It then decreases until the planet is directly in front of the star. The brightness increases again until the planet is no longer blocking the star, at which point it levels out.
Exoplanet WASP-96 b (NIRISS Transit Light Curve). A light curve from Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) shows the change in brightness of light from the WASP-96 star system over time as the planet transits the star. WASP-96 b is a hot gas giant exoplanet that orbits a Sun-like star roughly 1,150 light-years away, in the constellation Phoenix. The planet orbits extremely close to its star (less than 1/20th the distance between Earth and the Sun) and completes one orbit in less than 3½ Earth-days. The planet’s discovery, from ground-based observations, was announced in 2014. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Graphic titled “Hot Gas Giant Exoplanet WASP-96 b Atmosphere Composition, NIRISS SingleObject Slitless Spectroscopy.” The graphic shows the transmission spectrum of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b captured using Webb's NIRISS Single-Object Slitless Spectroscopy with an illustration of the planet and its star in the background. The data points are plotted on a graph of amount of light blocked in parts per million versus wavelength of light in microns. A curvy blue line represents a best-fit model. Four prominent peaks visible in the data and model are labeled “water, H 2 O.”
Exoplanet WASP-96 b (NIRISS Transmission Spectrum). A transmission spectrum made from a single observation using Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) reveals atmospheric characteristics of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b. This is the most detailed infrared exoplanet transmission spectrum ever collected. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

DM/ML

A full array of Webb’s first images and spectra is available here.

In case you missed it, also read Why the launch of the James Webb telescope could be the most important event of our lifetime

Why the launch of the James Webb telescope could be the most important event of our lifetime

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  • these images serve to put our planet and its issues’ irrelevance in the bigger scheme into context. None of us can comprehend the scale or can imagine what even one billion light years entails. We think Mars is far away and it is about 180 seconds away…

  • Breathtakingly beautiful images… we are less than a grain of sand in the greater scheme of things!
    That should make us think…

  • We don’t need the James Webb telescope to make us marvel at the universe. Take a lead from Edgar Mitchell and grab a politician (of any persuasion) by the scruff of the neck and drag him to the top of Table Mountain and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’, just before you push!

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