Home News NASA released the James Webb Space Telescope’s first color images. They’re awesome.

NASA released the James Webb Space Telescope’s first color images. They’re awesome.


Last year, before the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, I wrote: “The largest space telescope ever built is about to surprise us.”

Consider this idea. NASA has finally released the first images from the space-based observatory. The images were made over decades, after years of delays and budget-busting. But they didn’t disappoint. Consider the first image released by the space agency on Monday:

The first images released by the Webb Space Telescope show part of the distant universe in detail.

What makes this image so exciting is how small it is and how large it is, at the same time.

In a sense, this image represents only a small part of the night sky. Imagine that you are reaching out for a grain of sand. The area of ​​the sky covered by the grain – the size of the area captured in the image above.

But in a sense, almost every object in this picture is a galaxy (except for the bright spiked starbursts, which are the stars in the foreground), which is massive. Think about it: in every sky, there are at least thousands of galaxies.

Although it appears to us as a flat image, it reveals the depths of the universe, a window through time. The faintest, smallest spots of light in this photo are images of galaxies as they existed 13 billion years ago, near the beginning of time (light has been traveling through space since then). Not only can Webb capture images of such ancient galaxies; space telescopes can measure what elements these early galaxies were made of.

Images like this are similar to core samples of sedimentary rocks. It shows the evolution of the universe at many levels over time.

It represents a huge improvement over the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope, the largest observatory in space prior to Webb’s launch. Hubble’s mirror is an impressive 7.8 feet in diameter. Webb’s beautiful gold mirror combination measures 21.3 feet in diameter. Overall, this equates to more than six times the light-gathering area, and for a telescope, more light collection equals more detail.

You can already see the improvements Webb brings to Hubble. The Hubble Space Telescope previously made similar observations of Webb, the same galaxy cluster captured above.

In the image slider below, the Hubble view is on the left. On the right, Weber’s point is more detailed. More fainter galaxies in the background are easier to distinguish. You can also more easily and clearly see how some galaxies are distorted as a result of their light passing through the gravitational lensing of galaxies that are closer in the foreground. (Note: These images are not perfectly aligned, but you can still see noticeable differences in detail.)

On the left is a view from the Hubble Telescope. On the right is the same image taken by the Webb Telescope.

Another advantage Webb has over Hubble is the type of light it collects.

There are many different varieties of light. The human eye can only see a narrow band called visible light, but the universe contains a lot of light beyond that, including higher-frequency, higher-energy forms: ultraviolet and gamma rays. Then there’s low-energy light with longer wavelengths: infrared, microwaves, radio.

The Hubble Space Telescope collects visible light, ultraviolet light, and a little infrared. Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, so it sees longer wavelengths of light than we can see with the naked eye. It may seem nerdy and technical, but it’s actually what allows Webb to go back farther than Hubble.

Infrared is usually very old light due to a phenomenon called redshift. As the light source moves away from the observer, it gets stretched to longer and longer wavelengths, becoming redder and redder. This is similar to what happens with the sound of a siren passing by: the tone increases as the siren approaches, then decreases as the siren goes off. Because space is expanding, and the farthest things in the universe are moving away from us, their light gets redder and redder, eventually falling into the infrared spectrum. Infrared is invisible to the human eye, but Webb can capture its starlight details.

As the universe expands, it simultaneously stretches the wavelengths of light, a process known as redshifting. The farther an object is from us, the more light it emits stretches out as it reaches us.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Injury (Caltech-IPAC)

On Tuesday, NASA released more images from Webb, showcasing its impressive capabilities. Here, see the Carina Nebula, a region where stars form.Infrared light is less obscured by cosmic dust, so Webb can spot more stars in the region than Hubble“Webb reveals emerging stellar nurseries and individual stars completely hidden in visible light pictures,” NASA explained.

The Carina Nebula as seen through the James Webb Space Telescope.

Here, Webb discovered five galaxies. “Webb has shown unprecedented detail in this cluster of galaxies,” NASA relayed. “Glistening clusters of millions of young stars and regions of starbursts where novae are born add to this image.”

Stephen’s Quintet as seen through the Webb Space Telescope.

In another stunning image, Webb observes the remains of a dying star in the Southern Ring Nebula. Bottom left, the nebula was captured in the near-infrared, while the image on the right was in the mid-infrared, and they both showed different details in this disaster. The dim star at the center “has been emitting rings of gas and dust in all directions for thousands of years,” NASA wrote.

The Southern Ring Nebula seen through the Webb Telescope, with near-infrared light on the left and mid-infrared light on the right.

This is just the beginning of Weber’s scientific mission. In the future, scientists hope to use it to observe the first galaxies to have their first stars and to understand a time period known as the “cosmic dawn,” when the universe became transparent to starlight for the first time.

As the NSF explains, before the cosmic dawn, the universe was shrouded in a “dense, indistinct fog of primordial gas.” Since then, our telescopes have run out of light, a process known as the cosmic dark ages. (There is some background radiation from the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background, which is a faint glow that shines at us before the dark ages. But for the most part, the dark ages are a blank spot in our cosmic timeline.)

Astronomers hope that Webb will help them understand the end of the dark ages and find out what caused the fog to dissipate, ushering in the dawn of the universe.

Scientists are also excited to use Webb’s infrared capabilities to study exoplanets, which are planets orbiting stars other than our own. Webb is unlikely to see exoplanets directly, but what it can do is observe the stars they orbit. When a planet orbits in front of a star, light from the star acts as a filter through the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists can study the quality of the light coming from this filter and from it determine the composition of a planet’s atmosphere. The team of scientists working on Webb has done just that. On Tuesday, NASA announced that Webb had detected water in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet orbiting a Sun-like star.

Advances like the James Webb Space Telescope have me thinking about how we humans can be part of a universe that looks back on itself. The Big Bang, the birth of stars, the formation of galaxies… We are the result of physics and evolution like anything else in the universe. So when we look back at the universe with a telescope like Webb, we are completing a cycle. We’re building a tool to make the universe, perhaps, more self-aware.

Webb’s most basic function is to allow us to see more of the universe, and farther in time. This is just the beginning. There’s still a lot to see.

Further reading: Space Telescope

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