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Two experts break down the James Webb Space Telescope’s first images, and explain what we’ve already learnt

Two experts break down the James Webb Space Telescope’s first images, and explain what we’ve already learnt
Stephan’s Quintet is a compact group of interacting galaxies. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Through direct comparison with images from Hubble, you can start to see the exquisite detail and clarity Webb provides.

On 12 July we saw the release of the first batch of images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. This is something we have both been waiting on for nearly 25 years. Back in those days, we were analysing the first Hubble images of the distant universe, and the details they revealed were shocking compared to anything we’d seen in ground-based images.

It seems the bar has been raised once again, and Webb is set to herald a new age for astronomy and space research. Its large mirror helps it produce images that are two to three times sharper than Hubble’s, and which go much deeper into space (which means it can see fainter sources).

Webb can also see far redder infrared wavelengths, opening up a new view on the universe. This is especially important to study the early universe due to “cosmological redshift”, a process which refers to the stretching of light (with the expansion of the universe) as it travels across cosmic space.

It’s also useful for studying fascinating sources such as planets going around nearby stars, and the regions where stars form.

We’ve written before about the tremendous technical challenges involved in the construction of Webb and its journey into orbit. Now, with the long-awaited first images in our hands, let’s take a look at what they show.

Intense clarity

In a sneak peak, US President Joe Biden presented the very first image of Webb’s “deep field”. This is the massive galaxy cluster SMACS-0723 that contains thousands of galaxies clustered around a central super-bright galaxy squatting at the centre.

The giant southern cluster SMACS 0723 was captured by Webb.

The giant southern cluster SMACS 0723 was captured by Webb. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

You’ll immediately notice the many elongates arcs, representing background galaxies which have been “gravitationally lensed” as a result of the cluster’s mass. In other words, the huge forces of gravity at play have resulted in the light from the galaxies becoming distorted (stretched) and amplified, providing a highly enhanced image of the distant universe.

The clarity is astonishing, especially in terms of the structure of the lensed images. Here’s a zoomed-in look at one tiny region, compared with an image of similar exposure time from Hubble:

A comparison of Webb (left) and Hubble (right) in their view of the same region. This is a zoomed-in area of the Webb deep field. Adapted from images by NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI.

A comparison of Webb (left) and Hubble (right) in their view of the same region. This is a zoomed-in area of the Webb deep field. Adapted from images by NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Image: Supplied / The Conversation / NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI.

The enlarged images above portray a region in the deep field containing a spiral galaxy astronomers have affectionately been calling “The Slug”. It’s located several times further than the SMACS-0723 cluster.

But our eyes were drawn more to the very thin arc just above (marked with arrows). This little sliver demonstrates Webb’s power. This arc was barely detected by Hubble, but Webb sees the “beads on a string” clearly. They are likely individual star clusters in the extremely distant, tiny galaxy.

We can see similarly amazing details all over the deep field. For point-like objects, Webb is expected to be beyond 100 times more sensitive than Hubble, and this definitely demonstrates that.

The field is also scattered with some faint red objects, which are already attracting attention by experts. Some of these could potentially be the most distant galaxies, where the light has taken the longest to reach us.

Revealing hidden elements

Webb is also capable of extremely sensitive infrared spectroscopy, where light is broken down in wavelengths to reveal the composition of an object.

While Hubble is very poor at this, Webb manages to do this nicely – shown below by the spectrum of the massive planet WASP 96b. Located some 1120 light-years away, this planet weighs in at about half the mass of Jupiter.

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

The dips in the spectrum reveal the presence of water vapour in the planet’s atmosphere. Now, WASP 69b is unlikely to harbour life because of its proximity to its parent star. Yet this demonstration is very exciting since the same method can be applied to the 5,000 or so other known exoplanets.

With spectroscopy, we’ll eventually be able to detect potential signatures of life such as ozone and methane.

Seeing dust and gas

The third image is of the Southern Ring Nebula, about 2,000 light-years away in the Milky Way. This image shows off Webb’s mid-infrared capability (which is again well beyond Hubble’s range).

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

It’s a classic example of a “planetary nebula” (a misnomer since no planet is involved) in which the central star has transformed into a tiny white dwarf by blowing off its outer layer. This happens at a speed of about 15 kilometres per second, sending out rings of gas and dust.

The brightest star in the centre is actually a companion star, and the white dwarf is the fainter partner which can only be seen in the mid-infrared since it’s obscured by dust. The mid-infared also highlights the dust being formed in the expanding gas.

The fourth image below shows us Webb’s view of nearby galaxies. Here we see a famous galaxy group called Stefan’s Quintet, located about 290 million light-years away. The five galaxies are in close proximity. Four are interacting with each other and triggering abundant star formation.

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 colors red and gold. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

The red streaks and clumps show the location of new star formation via the associated dust. The detail of the dust distribution and the tug-of-war taking place between the galaxies leaps out from the image. And the mid-infrared reveals light from a supermassive black hole in the centre of the top galaxy.

What also stands out is the vast sea of distant galaxies in the background. We expect to see this in every Webb image, even when Webb points to sources within the Milky Way. That’s because infrared light passes through dust. Webb’s infrared-detecting capabilities are so sensitive it will see right through objects within our galaxy.

This means distant background galaxies will be photo-bombing every Webb image. See if you can spot them in the Southern Ring and Carina images.

And finally, we have Webb’s homage to Hubble’s famous Pillars of Creation image.

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which, have a blue or orange hue. The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.

“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

This infrared view shows the Carina Nebula, a stellar nursery of gas and dust 7,600 light-years away where new stars are forming and destroying their birth cloud.

The image is extremely complex, and the intricate swirls of dust, gas and young stars are jaw-dropping. It will probably take astronomers many years of hard work to figure out exactly what’s going on here.

Just this handful of preview images, a few days work for Webb, have given astronomers tremendous amounts of new data that will drive years of research. And that’s just the beginning. DM/ML 

This story was first published in The Conversation.

Karl Glazebrook is an ARC Laureate Fellow & Distinguished Professor at the Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology.  Simon Driver is a Professor of Astrophysics, at the University of Western Australia.

In case you missed it, also read In pictures: The James Webb telescope’s first images

In pictures: The James Webb telescope’s first images

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