When you really think about it, telescopes are actually real life time machines. While we can’t yet physically travel into the past, we can certainly peer into it.
And in the case of the fully operational James Webb Space Telescope, we can now see 13 billion years into the past. And it is BREATHTAKING.
On Monday, July 11, 2022, President Joe Biden unveiled the first public image from Webb, the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, also known as Webb’s First Deep Field.
Imagine this. You have a tiny grain of sand on your thumb, held at arm’s length. Picture yourself looking at the grain of sand against the sky. Webb took a photo the size of that grain of sand and this is what came back. And you are seeing what SMAC 0723 looked like 4.6 billion years ago – as that’s how long it took the light to reach Webb!!
One of my favorite aspects of this photo is that it looks like many of the galaxies behind and around are distorted and stretched out. Why is that? Some kind of poor Photoshop? Well, the powerful gravitational field of the galaxy cluster is literally bending the light rays from the distant galaxies behind it, warping the image we see of them.
If you are interested is viewing SMAC 0723 yourself, you can find it near the constellation Volans in the southern skies.
The Atmosphere of a Distant Planet
Say hello to our Milky Way’s own exoplanet, WASP-96 b. Webb’s precise instruments were able to capture starlight filtering through the planet’s atmosphere. The spectrum of light contained information about the makeup of the planet’s atmosphere, which is relatively close to us at only 1,150 light year away. And guess what it found? The distinct signature of WATER!
Webb measured light from WASP-96 for 6.4 hours as the planet moved across it’s own sun and the transmission spectrum revealed the previously hidden details of it’s atmosphere – the signatures for water, indications of haze and evidence of clouds that were thought to not exist based on prior observations. WASP is a gas giant with a mass less than half of Jupiter but with a diameter 1.2 times greater. The planet reaches temperatures of 1000°F as it orbits it’s own sun at 1/9th the distance between Mercury and our Sun, completing once circuit every 3 1/2 days.
If Webb can find water on a distant planet, what else can it discover?
A Dying Star
At a mere 2,500 light years away, the dim star within the Southern Ring Nebula (cataloged as NGC 3132) has been sending out rings of gas and dust for thousands of years in all directions as it slowly dies. The details of this incredible nebula were previously hidden from astronomers, until now.
The photos on the left was taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and the image on the right was taken by it’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). Like rings on a tree, each ring tells a story, with the widest rings being the earliest ejected gas and dust from the dying star. Webb will allow astronomers to refine their knowledge of nebulas.
A Galactic High Five
From over 1,000 separate image files spanning over 150 million pixels, NASA present to you, Stephan’s Quintet. With Webb’s powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, scientists have now seen details within this galaxy group they have never seen before.
The sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars are all being pulled from several of the galaxies from gravitational interactions. It also shows outflows driven by a black hole somewhere within the Quintet. The larger galaxies reside about 290 million light years from Earth, while the fifth and leftmost galaxy resides about 40 million light years away. The proximity of the galaxies to eachother will allow astronomers to witness how they interact with one another.
Located about 7,600 light years away, these space mountains are actually the stellar nursery that is the Carina Nebula. Filled with “Cosmic Cliffs” – a giant, gaseous cavity with the tallest “peaks” being 7 light years high, the cavernous area was carved by intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely hot, massive young stars in the center of the bubble. Observations of the Carina Nebula will help scientists learn more about the process of star formation.
What’s Next for Webb
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland will continue to manage and oversee Webb’s work on the mission performed by the Space Telescope Science Institute, Northrup Grumman and other mission partners. Webb will help scientists solve the mysteries of our solar system and help us learn more about when the lights turned on. You can keep track of where Webb is on NASA’s Where is Webb here.