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Slideshow: NASA and its partners unveil the first 5 images from the James Webb Space Telescope

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NASA and its partners unveil the first 5 images from the James Webb Space Telescope

Last night, NASA revealed the first image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. Today, at a special event, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) showed the rest of Webb’s ‘first light’ images, showcasing the Carina Nebula, WASP-96b (spectrum), Southern Ring Nebula, Stephan’s Quintet and SMACS 0723.

The images have been a long time coming and represent a major achievement for the James Webb Space Telescope team, and everyone has worked on the project for the last two decades. Webb is the biggest scientific undertaking ever at NASA and will peer back further than ever before. During the next 10-20 years, Webb will look at some of the earliest stars, see the universe’s origins, and investigate exoplanets.

We’ve waited long enough. Let’s see what NASA and ESA shared today.

SMACS 0723 – Webb’s First Deep Field

SMACS 0723

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Click to enlarge (this is the full-resolution image).

In case you missed the image that was revealed last night, here it is again. This image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, now known as ‘Webb’s First Deep Field.’ It’s the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe.

The composite image took about 12.5 hours to capture and is comprised of images shot at different wavelengths using Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). You can see thousands of galaxies in this image, as they were 4.6 billion years ago. The image shows a tiny sliver of the sky. Imagine holding up a grain of sand at arm’s length from Earth’s surface. That’s how much of the sky the image shows and it’s bursting at the seams with galaxies.

WASP-96b (spectrum)

WASP-96b (spectrum).

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Click to enlarge (this is the full-resolution image).

The second image is a spectrum graph of an exoplanet, WASP-96 b. It’s not a direct image, but the data unveiled shows us a lot about an exoplanet that was only discovered in 2014. The planet is about 1,150 light-years from Earth and is roughly half the mass of Jupiter. The planet is very close to its sun, so it’s hot. Webb shows that the planet, comprised primarily of gas, has water vapor in its atmosphere, which is an incredible discovery.

NASA writes, ‘NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star.’ The observation is the most detailed of its kind to date.

Southern Ring Nebula

Southern Ring Nebula (NIRCam and MIRI Images side by side).

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Click to enlarge (this is the full-resolution image).

The third image is two photos of the Southern Ring Nebula, a side-by-side comparison of images captured by Webb’s NIRCam and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). NASA writes, ‘This scene was created by a white dwarf star – the remains of a star like our Sun after it shed its outer layers and stopped burning fuel though nuclear fusion. Those outer layers now form the ejected shells all along this view.’

The Southern Ring, or ‘Eight-Burst’ nebula, is a planetary nebula. It’s an expanding cloud of gas that surrounds a dying star. The Southern Ring Nebula is relatively close to Earth. It’s about 2,000 light-years from us. The nebula is very big; about half a light-year in diameter.

Stephan’s Quintet

Stephan’s Quintet. ‘Together, the five galaxies of Stephan’s Quintet are also known as the Hickson Compact Group 92 (HCG 92). Although called a “quintet,” only four of the galaxies are truly close together and caught up in a cosmic dance. The fifth and leftmost galaxy, called NGC 7320, is well in the foreground compared with the other four. NGC 7320 resides 40 million light-years from Earth, while the other four galaxies (NGC 7317, NGC 7318A, NGC 7318B, and NGC 7319) are about 290 million light-years away. This is still fairly close in cosmic terms, compared with more distant galaxies billions of light-years away. Studying such relatively nearby galaxies like these helps scientists better understand structures seen in a much more distant universe.’

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Click to enlarge (this is the full-resolution image).

Up next is Stephan’s Quintet. As evidenced by its name, the image shows five galaxies. Stephan’s Quintet is about 290 million light-years away in the Pegasus constellation. The compact galaxy group was discovered way back in 1787. Four of the five galaxies are ‘locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.’

NASA writes, ‘With its powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, Webb shows never-before-seen details in this galaxy group. Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image. Sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars are being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions. Most dramatically, Webb captures huge shock waves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, smashes through the cluster.’

This image is important for understanding interactions between galaxies. Thanks to Webb, scientists can see how interacting galaxies influence star creation in greater detail. The gas of each galaxy interact with each other. As NASA puts it, ‘Stephan’s Quintet is a fantastic ‘laboratory’ for studying these processes fundamental to all galaxies.’

NGC 3324 – Carina Nebula

NGC 3324 – Carina Nebula

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Click to enlarge (this is the full-resolution image).

NASA might have saved the best for last. The final image is a beautiful look at the edge of a gaseous cavity within NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. The photo shows emerging stellar nurseries and stars within the nebula that were previously impossible to see through cosmic dust.

NASA writes, ‘Called the Cosmic Cliffs, Webb’s seemingly three-dimensional picture looks like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening. In reality, it is the edge of the giant, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, and the tallest “peaks” in this image are about 7 light-years high. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars located in the center of the bubble, above the area shown in this image.’

The observations of NGC 3324 will help us better understand star formation. Until now, scientists have had little data about how many low-mass stars may influence further star formation. NIRCam and MIRI combine to offer new, clearer views. NASA continues, ‘Webb reveals emerging stellar nurseries and individual stars that are completely hidden in visible-light pictures. Because of Webb’s sensitivity to infrared light, it can peer through cosmic dust to see these objects. Protostellar jets, which emerge clearly in this image, shoot out from some of these young stars. The youngest sources appear as red dots in the dark, dusty region of the cloud. Objects in the earliest, rapid phases of star formation are difficult to capture, but Webb’s extreme sensitivity, spatial resolution, and imaging capability can chronicle these elusive events.’


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