Tyour week, NASA revealed for the first time five images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Together, these images, from the birth of stars to one of the deepest glimpses into the far reaches of space, offer some of the most detailed glimpses of our universe’s early days ever seen.
Here’s what each image shows and why it helps us better understand the space:
Webb’s cameras can look into deep space and into the distant past. Webb has the ability to look 13.6 billion light-years away, which will be the furthest we’ve ever seen in space. This image of the galaxy cluster known as SMACS 0723 contains thousands of galaxies, some of which are 13.1 billion light-years away. (A single light year is just under 6 billion miles.) Since light takes a long time to travel that far, we are seeing galaxies not as they look today, but as they looked 13.1 billion years ago. The bluest galaxies are the most mature and contain many stars and little dust. Redder galaxies contain more dust, from which stars are still forming.
Stars, like the rest of us, are born, grow old and die, and the Carina Nebula, located 7,600 light-years from Earth, is one of the great stellar nurseries in the cosmos. The cliff-like formations are vast peaks of dust and gas, some as long as seven light-years. The Hubble Space Telescope has photographed Carina before, but never in the dazzling detail that Webb has provided. Young stars are being born in this turbulent region, merging with surrounding material. As stars form, they give off huge amounts of energy that help shape the nebula as a whole. The red dots in the image are jets of energy emitted by young, growing stars.
Webb captured the best image ever taken of Stephan’s Quintet, a cluster of five galaxies, first seen by astronomers in 1877. The quintet is actually more of a quartet, with the leftmost galaxy in the foreground, 40 million light-years from Earth, while the other four are located much further away, at 290 million light-years. The four closely packed galaxies interact, with dust and stars gravitationally attracted to one another, mixing their material. Young star clusters appear as bright flashes in the image, and thousands of more distant galaxies are visible in the background.
South Ring Nebula
One dying star can be a startlingly beautiful thing, and two such stars can be twice as striking. Webb captured an image of this pair of ancient stars orbiting each other approximately 2,500 light-years from Earth. When stars reach the end of their lives, they emit gas and dust that form the nebulae or clouds that surround them. Webb has the ability not only to image the South Ring Nebula, but also to analyze its chemistry, understanding more about how stars get rid of their matter when they die. The brighter of the two stars is younger than the other and has yet to emit as much material. As the stars orbit each other, they effectively churn up the gaseous nebula, giving it its characteristic shape.
A scientific graph is not as flashy as a cosmic photograph, but in this case the graph has a story to tell. Webb is studying exoplanets, or planets that orbit other stars, in particular the composition of their atmospheres. As the planet passes in front of its parent star, Webb can analyze starlight passing through the atmosphere, looking for the chemical fingerprints of biology. In this graphic, Webb analyzed the atmosphere of WASP 96 B, a Jupiter-like planet 1,150 light-years from Earth. Webb didn’t find biology, but as the graph shows, he did find a lot of water in the planet’s clouds, and water is the key ingredient for life as we know it.
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