In an unveiling that involved the president himself, the James Webb Space Telescope’s very first color image — Webb’s First Deep Field — was released yesterday evening at the White House. This image showed a paltry, grain-sized portion of the universe, albeit the picture was a beautifully sharp-resolution look at the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared. The detail-rich galaxy cluster you see above is 4.6 billion years old and was taken with Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). To create it required stitching together images at different wavelengths. In just 12.5 hours, Webb created a sharper deep field than Hubble was able to create in weeks.
The circular distortion seen in the middle of the image is evidence of gravitational lensing, a phenomenon where the galaxy’s mass and gravitational pull can bend light, magnifying distant galaxies in the background. The high-resolution quality of this image has allowed researchers to spot never-before-seen structures of star clusters and diffuse features. It won’t be long now until we explore some cosmic worlds for the very first time, gleaning their composition, history, and ages from the telescope’s data.
This is exactly what James Webb is built for: to provide humanity with a series of firsts. To be the next step in the field of astronomy.
And the unveiling continued this morning, July 12th. Below are images unlike any we’ve ever seen of this cosmic ocean in which we find ourselves suspended. The images spanned back a remarkable 13 to 13.5 billion years, or just a billion years after the Big Bang.
Though it wasn’t originally planned for Webb, one of its major objectives became the search for exoplanets. 1,000 lightyears away we find a hot, gaseous planet known as WASP-96 b, orbiting a sun-like star. The distance between star and planet is only one-ninth of the distance between Mercury and the Sun. With its advanced instruments Webb has allowed us to create a spectrum of the planet’s composition. The data reveals water vapor, clouds, and hazes. The water on this planet isn’t liquid but instead a misty swirl of steam in the planet’s atmosphere. While this is a world we might consider hostile at over 1000°F (538°C), in the future Webb may help us find planets that more closely resemble our home.
One of the most stunning image reveals is that of the Southern Ring Nebula, known scientifically as NGC 3132. This planetary nebula is 2,500 lightyears away. Though we have seen this beauty before, Webb has allowed us to better view a second, more obscured star near the center of the nebula. The star sheds gas and dust as it orbits another stellar companion in a binary system. Their orbits shift the landscape of gas and dust around them, creating shells and asymmetrical patterns. Each shell is a layer of the fainter star’s mass that’s been shed, with the outer shells being the oldest and the inner shells being the most recent. The brighter star below is younger and likely to form its own nebula later on. The NIRCam revealed fine rays of light that show how the stars’ light emits out through holes in the surrounding gas and dust.
The largest of Webb’s images to date, Stephan’s Quintet is a galaxy group teeming with revelations about the formation of galaxies. We can see in better detail than ever before how stars form and how gas is distributed. The upper galaxy in the group, NGC 7319, is home to an active supermassive black hole with 24 million times the mass of the sun. Even behind the 5 primary galaxies in the image we can see an ocean of distant galaxies. It’s a frantic play — a nursery of newly-born stars and older stars getting swept and manipulated by the gravity of the galaxies. This is an artifact, a representation of galaxy groups that may have been more common towards the beginning of our universe. Superheated material from these galaxies may even have fueled quasars — formidable and energetic black holes.
The final, but no less breathtaking image revealed at today’s conference is this one of stellar nursery NGC 3324, part of the Carina Nebula. With this view we find hundreds of stars we formerly couldn’t see. As a technological feat James Webb is making the invisible, visible. The peaks you see below are up to 7 lightyears tall, reaching up towards the center of a bubble that’s not fully shown in this image. The resplendent blue cavity was created by UV radiation and stellar winds from hot, new stars. UV light from the stars erodes the nebula’s structure and creates clouds of ionized gas. You can also see how the stars shoot out protostellar jets, cylinders of material that have been turned away from the star because of its magnetic fields and accretion disk. These early stages of star-formation are short and elusive, yet fundamental to our understanding of the universe.
James Webb views the universe in a way no other machine has ever seen it, meaning that we will see the universe in ways we’ve never experienced before. Gas, for example, is an impediment for so many of our instruments to get an accurate view of the cosmos. It is only now with Webb’s powerful infrared capabilities that we are able to pull back the veils of dust to see what may lie underneath. These images mark the dawn of the telescope’s true intentions. We are about to embark into scientific discoveries, and profound enlightenment about the origins of our world.
To read more about the findings and to download the full-resolution images, you can visit NASA’s website.