What the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope tell us about the universe – TechCrunch

What the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope tell us about the universe – TechCrunch
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NASA revealed full-color images from the $11 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Tuesday, marking the first of what are sure to be many launches of the super-powerful optical instrument. But even taken by themselves, these five images mark a major achievement and the culmination of a 26-year process to give humanity an even more detailed look at the early universe.

The image revealed today followed the release of the initial image by President Joe Biden on Monday. That shot, called “Webb’s First Deep Field”, showed the cluster SMACS 0723, a vast swirl of galaxies that really only represents a portion of the universe the size of “a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length,” as NASA administrator Bill Nelson put it. , on the live stream. .

Today’s revelations include a galactic cluster and a black hole; the atmosphere of a distant planet; the epic death knell of a distant star; and a “stellar nursery” where stars are born. We’ve had a look at some of these targets before, thanks to JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, and all of them were known to astronomers. But because of the unprecedented sensitivity of JWST’s instruments and their ability to see objects in the infrared spectrum, we can see these galactic shapes more clearly than ever before.

“Oh my gosh, it works,” said Jane Rigby, Webb’s operations project scientist, upon viewing the first focused images from the observatory. “And it works better than we thought.”

Signs of water and clouds on a puffy exoplanet

James Webb Wasp96b Space Telescope

Image credits: POT

There are more than 5,000 confirmed exoplanets, or planets that orbit a star other than our sun, just in the Milky Way. The existence of exoplanets raises a fundamental question: are we alone in the universe? Indeed, the explicit goal of NASA’s Exoplanet Program is to find signs of life in the universe; now, thanks to JWST, scientists can capture more information about these planetary bodies and hopefully learn more about whether life exists on these planets and, if so, under what conditions it can thrive.

That brings us to WASP-96 b, an exoplanet about 1,150 light-years away. It is a large gas giant that is more than twice as small in mass as Jupiter, but is 1.2 times as large in diameter. In other words, it’s “bloated,” as NASA put it. It also has a short orbital period around its star and is relatively free of contamination from light emitted by nearby objects, making it a prime target for JWST’s optical power.

But this is not an image of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. It’s a transmission spectrum image of the exoplanet, which may be less exciting at first glance. However, this spectrum, captured with the telescope’s near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph (NIRISS), showed unmistakable signs of water and even evidence of clouds. Clouds! It’s an “indirect method” for studying exoplanets, James Webb Associate Project Scientist Knicole Colón explained at a news conference, but the telescope will also use direct observing methods over the next year.

NIRISS can also capture evidence of other molecules, such as methane and carbon dioxide. While these were not observed on WASP-96 b, they could be detected on other exoplanets JWST observes.

Shells of gas and dust ejected by dying stars

South Ring Nebula from the James Webb Space Telescope

Image credits: POT

JWST also took a look at a planetary nebula officially named NGC 3132, or the “Southern Ring Nebula,” providing scientists with more clues about the fate of stars at the end of their life cycles. NASA showed two side-by-side images of this nebula, one taken in near-infrared light (left) with the telescope’s NIRCam and a second image taken with JWST’s mid-infrared instrument (right).

A planetary nebula is an area of ​​cosmic gas and dust generated by dying stars. This particular one, which is about 2,500 light-years away, was also captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, but NASA says this updated JWST image offers more detail of the elegant structures surrounding the binary star system.

Of the two stars (best seen in the image on the right), there is a dimmer dying star located in the lower left and a brighter star that is earlier in its life. The images also show what NASA calls “layers” surrounding stars, each marking a period when the dimmer, dying star (the white dwarf in the lower left corner of the right image) lost part of its mass. It has been ejecting this material for thousands of years, and NASA said its three-dimensional shape is more like two bowls sitting side by side on their bottoms, opening into each other.

The cosmic dance of Stephan’s Quintet

stephan's quintet James Webb Space Telescope

Image credits: POT

Stephan’s Quintet, first observed by the French astronomer Édouard Stephan in 1877, shows the strange interaction of five galaxies in a degree of detail never seen before. This final image is made up of nearly 1,000 individual images and 150 million pixels, and marks the largest JWST image to date, representing about one-fifth the diameter of the moon.

The image is a bit misleading; the leftmost galaxy is actually in the far foreground, about 40 million light-years from us, while the remaining four galaxy systems are about 290 million light-years distant. These four galaxies are clustered so close together, relatively speaking, that they actually interact with each other.

The image even reveals a supermassive black hole, located at the center of the upper galaxy, that is about 24 million times the mass of the sun.

I think this could be paradise

Cosmic Cliffs from the James Webb Space Telescope

Image credits: POT

JWST also gives us a deeper look at the Carina Nebula, a region of the Milky Way galaxy about 7,600 light-years away. As we look at Carina with Hubble, the new image shows hundreds of new stars, thanks to JWST’s ability to cut through cosmic dust. The Carina Nebula reveals that star birth is not a peaceful and placid affair, but is instead characterized by highly unstable processes that can, in some ways, be as destructive as they are generative.

The amber landscape streaming across the bottom of the image marks the edge of the nebula’s huge, chaotic star-forming region, so massive that the highest points of this amber band, which NASA calls “cosmic cliffs,” have about seven light-years tall. Data from JWST will give scientists more insight into the process of star formation and may help address why certain numbers of stars form in certain regions, as well as how stars end up with the mass they do have.

Ultimately, these achievements are just the beginning. Scientists still have plenty of questions about exoplanets, the formation of the universe, and more, and now they have a powerful new tool in their arsenal to search for answers.

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