Explore images from the Webb Space Telescope with our narrated tour

Explore images from the Webb Space Telescope with our narrated tour

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built, now sits about a million miles from Earth, swinging from one corner of the sky to another as it studies the target-rich environment that is our universe. The first images were made public this week.

They are superb. They are also packed with information about the universe, the interaction of galaxies, and the birth and death of stars.

Still, these images can be enigmatic to the average observer without a degree in astrophysics. What exactly are we looking at?

Let’s take a closer look.

The deep field

There are many galaxies out there. It was the first image made public, demonstrating the telescope’s ability to pick up extraordinarily faint infrared light emitted during the universe’s first billion years. The image centers on a cluster of galaxies more than 4 billion light-years away, meaning its light was emitted around the time the sun and Earth were formed. The galaxies in the cluster appear as creamy-white spots.

These galaxies collectively create a powerful gravitational distortion in space that acts like a lens, magnifying and distorting more distant objects. This results in funhouse mirror galaxies like the one in the top right of the image that NASA astronomer Jane Rigby calls Laffy Taffy.

In another part of the image, the lens has transformed a single galaxy into two mirror-image galaxies.

Light comes in many wavelengths along what is called the electromagnetic spectrum. Humans see in a narrow band known as the “optical” part of the spectrum. The Webb Telescope collects light emitted in the infrared – long wavelengths that are largely inaccessible to the Hubble Telescope and completely invisible to us.


james

Webb

Space

Telescope

Sources: NASA; European Space Agency;

Space Telescope Science Institute

WILLIAM NEFF/WASHINGTON POST

James Webb

space telescope

Sources: NASA; European Space Agency;

Space Telescope Science Institute

WILLIAM NEFF/WASHINGTON POST

James Webb Space Telescope

Sources: NASA; European Space Agency; Space Telescope Science Institute

WILLIAM NEFF/WASHINGTON POST

The Webb team scanned dozens of the reddest – most distant – galaxies in this image and determined that one of them – a tiny pixelated blob – emitted its light about 13.1 years ago. billion years, or just 700 million years after the big bang. (Distances to such objects are inferred by their “redshift” – the extent to which the light has been stretched by the expansion of space itself.)

The telescope obtained a spectrum of the galaxy, showing signs of oxygen, hydrogen and neon. Rigby said this type of observation will clarify what happened during the universe’s first billion years: “We really don’t know at all how big these galaxies were, how many there were. “

South Ring Nebula

Stars like our sun are nuclear fusion reactors that are remarkably stable over billions of years. But even they are getting old. This image shows what happens when a star dies. He gets rid of matter in his throbbing agony.

These clouds of gas and dust, made up of complex molecules, are the raw material for stars and unformed planets.

NASA released two images, one in the near infrared (relatively close to the “visible” part of the spectrum) and one in the mid-infrared (further along the spectrum).

In the near infrared, the material forms a ring of frothy gas and dust, with hot, ionized gas dominating the central region. Rays of light pass through the holes in the outer ring.

A single star is clearly visible in the center. But it’s a binary system – two stars, linked by gravity.

In the mid-infrared, we see both. The dying is weaker. The telescope reveals that it is shrouded in dust.

Our sun will look like this star in 5 billion years, explained Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“It’s a life cycle of stars,” Pontoppidan said. “It’s the end for this star, but it’s a beginning for other stars and other planetary systems.”

The image includes an intriguing slash on a shoulder that astronomers realized was a distant galaxy. Although it is a vast three-dimensional structure with billions of stars, we look at the edge of it, as if we were watching a frisbee spin away from us.

Stephan Quintet

The image contains a lot of cosmos.

There are stars in our own galaxy, which means they are in the foreground, cosmically speaking.

Foreground stars in all Webb images can be identified by their “diffraction peaks”, which are an artifact of telescope design. The diffraction peaks on these images serve as a kind of Webb telescope watermark.

In the distance is what appears to be a quintet of galaxies.

The one on the left is not part of the group but rather in the foreground, about 40 million light-years away.

The telescope can discern individual stars in the foreground galaxy.

Many are aging “red giants” near the end of their lives, with well-documented properties that help astronomers estimate their true brightness and distance. Such observations could improve the model used by scientists to estimate the distance to objects over huge stretches of space.

The other four galaxies are about 290 million light-years apart. Two merge. The gravitational interactions of galaxies sent streams of star-forming gas and dust into intergalactic space.

Surprisingly, this image, like the “Deep Field”, contains countless galaxies scattered in the background. Look closely and you will see beautiful spiral galaxies far away, much like our own Milky Way.

The large galaxy at the top has a supermassive and highly active black hole at its core, feeding on its surroundings. The black hole itself does not emit light, by definition, but its gravitational field energizes gas nearby, causing atoms to clash against each other and generate tremendous heat.

This black hole’s accretion disk shines with the energy of 40 billion suns, Rigby said: “Black holes don’t emit any light, but their accretion disks do!”

Carina Nebula

Looks like a good place for a hike! Complete with a brilliant starry sky. This nebula is a stellar nursery within our own galaxy.

“What looks like a starry night sky is part of a huge bubble that has been carved into the cloud by ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive and hot young stars that have already formed,” said astronomer Amaya. Moro-Martin of the Space Institute for Telescope Science.

Streams of ionized material flow up the frame.

The Webb can see shock waves caused by newly lit stars forming inside the cloud. Their environment is hostile, because the same process that erodes the cloud can stop star formation.

The Hubble Telescope has previously examined this section of the sprawling Carina Nebula, and the Webb team knew the well-defined boundaries between the dusty cloud and the “open sky” would create a wowzer picture.

But it’s more than pretty space art, said Joseph DePasquale, who is part of the team that processed the images at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

“We knew that, based on the Hubble image, the landscape would look a lot like a mountain range and the sky behind it. We knew that was going to be impactful from an aesthetic standpoint,” DePasquale said. “But there was also a lot going on in terms of physics. Webb could look deeper into the clouds and uncover the mysteries of what’s going on.

About this story

This annotation was compiled with the help of many scientists and researchers, including: Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; Joseph DePasquale and Amaya Moro-Martin of the Space Telescope Science Institute, and Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Visual editing by Julie Vitkovskaya. Design and development by Garland Potts. Graphics by Aaron Steckelberg and William Neff. Photo editing by Tristen Rouse. Copy edited by Jeremy Hester.

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