On July 12, 2022, NASA revealed the very first pictures taken by the new James Webb Space Telescope. The five shots show us the incredible optical resolution of the Webb telescope, heralding an extremely promising future for the space-based observatory.
Over 20 years of waiting
The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on December 25, 2021, after more than 20 years of hard work. The first six months served to fine-tune the observatory’s various instruments and components.
Astronomers from all over the world and the general public as well couldn’t wait to see the first pictures from the Webb telescope. And when we did see those photos, no one could deny that they were worth the wait: the images are quite simply breathtaking! We distinguish details in them that no other telescope has previously been able to divulge.
Let’s take a slightly closer look at the photographs.
A view of the distant Universe
The first image released targeted the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, situated 4.5 billion light years from us. They’re the whitish spots at the center of the picture. The cluster’s immense mass deforms the surrounding space-time, magnifying the light from the more distant galaxies located behind it. Those are the orange splotches stretched out around the cluster. Some of the galaxies are located 13.1 billion light years away.
This shot required a 12-hour exposure, and covers only a very small region of the sky. But already we can see that the amount and above all the resolution of the observable details are striking. It’s the deepest and clearest image of the Universe obtained to date.
Water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet
The Canadian instrument mounted on the Webb, the NIRISS spectrograph, captured the spectrum of the exoplanet WASP-96b’s atmosphere. This method makes it possible to reveal the chemical composition of the observed object. We see in the exoplanet’s spectrum the distinct signature of water vapor through clouds in the atmosphere. These are interesting observations, because the gas exoplanet WASP-96b is so close to its star that it orbits it in only 3.5 days and the temperature of the atmosphere exceeds 750°C.
The spectrum of the exoplanet WASP-96b’s atmosphere captured by the Canadian instrument NIRISS. Source : NASA/ESA/ASC/STScI
The Southern Ring in all its splendor
The Webb telescope pointed its two main cameras at the nebula NGC 3132, also called the Southern Ring Nebula. The shots of the nebula show an unprecedented amount of details. The nebula was produced by a dying star, a white dwarf, that ejected a large part of its outer layers. The picture by the NIRCam imager reveals the complexity of the structures in the expanding gas ring. The very bright star at the center of the photograph is the white dwarf’s stellar companion, which is masked by the intense surrounding brightness. On the image taken by the MIRI instrument, we very clearly distinguish, for the first time, the white dwarf.
Stephan’s Quintet is a galaxy group known since the 19th century. Four galaxies in the group are gravitationally bound and have been performing a majestic cosmic ballet for millions of years. The galaxy on the left in the photo is located only 40 million light years from us, compared to 290 million for the interacting group. Thanks to the Webb telescope, we get to observe structures of gas and stars among the interacting galaxies, demonstrating the colossal gravitational forces involved here. On both sides of the galaxy located at the top of the picture we can also distinguish jets of material emanating from the supermassive black hole sitting at its center.
A star-filled nursery
The last picture shows the nebula NGC 3324 in the constellation Carina, a vast star-forming region in the Milky Way. The Webb telescope is especially designed to examine these areas of dust and gas. This Webb image reveals regions of dust sculpted by the intense radiation of young stars being formed that are visible for the first time to a telescope. It’s in this sort of environment that the Sun and the planets in our solar system were born, 4.5 billion years ago.
A promising future
Over the coming weeks, the James Webb space telescope will carry on with its collection of stunning images, which will very quickly be made available to the general public. Beginning in fall 2022, the astronomers who’ve had observing time will take over. If the first images are anything to go by, there’s no question that the James Webb Space Telescope hasn’t finished filling us with amazement. A wonderful story to stay tuned to…