TNASA shared five photographs taken by its James Webb Space Telescope for the first-ever time this week. Together, these images—from the birth of stars to one of the deepest looks into the far reaches of space—offer some of the most detailed glimpses into the beginnings of our universe ever seen.
Here’s what each image shows and why it helps us better understand space:
Webb’s cameras can look deep into space and far into the past. Webb has the capacity to look 13.6 billion light years distant—which will be the farthest we’ve ever seen into space. Image of the galactic center SMACS0723. This photo contains many galaxies. A single lightyear is approximately 6 trillion miles. It takes light a while to travel far so we’re seeing galaxies as they were 13.1 billion years ago. These galaxies have more stars than the younger ones and are therefore older. Redder galaxies have more dust and stars, which makes them less mature.
Stars, like the rest of us, are born, age, and die, and the Carina Nebula, located 7,600 light years from Earth, is one of the cosmos’s great stellar nurseries. These formations, which look almost like cliffs, are huge peaks of gas and dust that can reach seven light-years high. Although the Hubble Space Telescope had previously captured Carina, it has never seen her in such incredible detail as Webb’s. This region is home to young stars that are forming from the surrounding matter. Stars emit enormous amounts of energy when they are formed, which helps to give shape to the overall nebula. The red dots are energy jets emitted from the infant, growing stars.
Webb captured the greatest image ever taken of Stephan’s Quintet, a cluster of five galaxies, first seen by astronomers in 1877. Although the quintet looks more like a quartet with the leftmost galaxie located at 40 million lightyears from Earth, while four of the others are far further away, they are actually located at a distance of 290 millions light years. The four closely packed galaxies interact, with dust and stars gravitationally pulled from one to another—commingling their material. As bright sparkly lights in the background, clusters of young stars can be seen. Thousands of other distant galaxies can also be visible.
Southern Ring Nebula
A dying star can be a surprisingly beautiful thing—and two such stars can be twice as striking. Webb snapped an image showing this pair of old stars orbiting one another approximately 2,500 light years away from Earth. When stars reach the end their life, they emit gases and dust, which form the clouds that surround them. Webb can not only see the Southern Ring Nebula in its entirety, but it is also able to study the chemistry of the region to gain a better understanding about star matter and how they lose it. Both the brighter and older stars have yet to produce as much material. The stars’ orbits around each other effectively stir gaseous nebula and give it its unique shape.
While a scientific graph might not look as dramatic as a stellar photo, the graph tells a story. Webb is studying exoplanets—or planets that orbit other stars—particularly the make-up of their atmospheres. Webb is able to analyze starlight passing through the atmosphere as the planet passes near its parent star. This allows him to look for chemical fingerprints in biology. Webb analyzed WASP 96, a Jupiterlike planet 1,150 light-years away from Earth. Webb did not find biology, but as the graph shows, it did find plenty of water in the planet’s clouds—and water is the key ingredient for life as we know it.
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