The James Webb Deep Space Telescope just sent us a few postcards: The first jaw-dropping images of galaxies far, far away. Wish you were here.
The day scientists, astronomers and stargazers have been eagerly awaiting has finally arrived.
“The dawn of a new era in astronomy has begun as the world gets its first look at the full capabilities of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency),” NASA announced triumphantly.
Even for scientists, they sounded excited. With good reason, as it turns out.
“The telescope’s first full-color images and spectroscopic data were released during a televised broadcast at 10:30 a.m. EDT (14:30 UTC) on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland,” read NASA’s press release. “These listed targets below represent the first wave of full-color scientific images and spectra the observatory has gathered, and the official beginning of Webb’s general science operations.”
These particular photos, according to NASA, “were selected by an international committee of representatives from NASA, ESA, CSA, and the Space Telescope Science Institute.”
“A star is born!”
“Behind the curtain of dust and gas in these ‘Cosmic Cliffs’ are previously hidden baby stars, now uncovered by Webb,” says NASA of the incredible image, inviting the curious to, “take a second and admire the Carina Nebula is all its glory,” at, “webbfirstimages.”
“We know — this is a show-stopper,” acknowledged NASA, humbly. Who can blame them? It ain’t bragging if you’ve done it, right?
“Webb’s new view gives us a rare peek into stars in their earliest, rapid stages of formation. For an individual star, this period only lasts about 50,000 to 100,000 years,” explains NASA.
NASA provides the following detailed description of the image:
“The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes.”
“The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which have a blue or orange hue. The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys — an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.”
During the darkest days of COVID19, the fantastic story of the construction and launch of the James Webb Deep Space Telescope was the delight of elementary and secondary schools all over the world.
Students, their teachers and everyone else on earth got an unprecedented glimpse into the conception and construction of the massive project from start to finish. Over the years, NASA has gone out of its way to post pictures of every stage of Webb’s journey.
With these first images coming back today, everyone is getting in on the fun- from the Empire State Building going gold in honor of Webb, to Google’s search engine transforming into whimsical Webb-art for the day.
These first photos have exceeded the wildest imaginations of Webb watchers around the globe. As a result, there will likely be a good deal more people eagerly anticipating the next transmission.
“Galactic high five!”
“In the James Webb Space Telescope’s image of Stephan’s Quintet, we see 5 galaxies, 4 of which interact,” explains NASA of the image above. “The left galaxy is actually in the foreground!”
“These colliding galaxies are pulling and stretching each other in a gravitational dance,” according to NASA. “Webb will revolutionize our knowledge of star formation and gas interactions.”
NASA provides the following detailed description of Stephan’s Quintet:
“Stephan’s Quintet, a collection of five galaxies, as seen by MIRI on the James Webb Space Telescope. The galaxies all glow in different colors, surrounded by lacy, glowing clouds of gas and dust. Four of the five are centered in the image. Three are visibly spiral galaxies, with tendrils extending out from their glowing centers.”
“The galaxy farthest to the left appears slightly more clearly, with vibrant blue lacing surrounding the oval-shaped light of the galaxy. This is because the farthest left galaxy is not interacting with the other four; it’s actually far in the foreground from the others. The galaxies all appear against a field of sparkling stars and other, farther galaxies.Here’s Stephan’s Quintet as taken by Webb’s MIRI instrument. In the mid-infrared, Webb pierces through dust, giving new insight into how interactions like these may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe.”
Webb provided a larger image of Stephan’s Quintet as well.
“This mosaic, a composite of near and mid-infrared data, is Webb’s largest image to date, covering an area of the sky 1/5 of the Moon’s diameter (as seen from Earth),” said NASA of the huge image. “It contains more than 150 million pixels and is constructed from about 1,000 image files.”
According to NASA, this image contains:
“A group of five galaxies that appear close to each other in the sky: two in the middle, one toward the top, one to the upper left, and one toward the bottom. Four of the five appear to be touching. One is somewhat separated. In the image, the galaxies are large relative to the hundreds of much smaller (more distant) galaxies in the background. All five galaxies have bright white cores. Each has a slightly different size, shape, structure, and coloring. Scattered across the image, in front of the galaxies are number of foreground stars with diffraction spikes: bright white points, each with eight bright lines radiating out from the center.”
“Two stars both alike in dignity, in the fair Southern Ring planetary nebula where we lay our scene…” says NASA, poetically, of the above image. “Here our ‘star-crossed lovers’ are actually a dying star expelling gas & dust, in orbit with a younger star that is helping to change the shape of this nebula’s intricate rings by creating turbulence.”
NASA also provides this illuminating description:
“A planetary nebula seen, by Webb’s MIRI, against the blackness of space, with points of starlight behind it. Plumes of glowing bright blue gas radiate out from the oval-shaped nebula. Two separate ovals of reddish pink gas appear stacked on top of each other, inside the lacy blue gas clouds. In the center of the nebula, two stars glow close to each other. One star looks more red, while the other appears more yellow.”
This second image from Webb’s NIRCam shows the Southern Ring planetary nebula in near-infrared.
“Despite ‘planet’ in the name, which comes from how these objects first appeared to astronomers observing them hundreds of years ago, these are shells of dust and gas shed by dying Sun-like stars,” says NASA. “The new details from Webb will transform our understanding of how stars evolve and influence their environments.”
NASA explains further as follows:
“The nebula itself is shaped like an irregular oval, with lacy, reddish orange plumes of gas and dust. Further inside the circle, the gas and dust glows bright blue. A glowing white ring separates the red and blue gases. In the center of the rings are two stars, one glowing much brighter than the other, with diffraction spikes radiating out from it.”
With these incredible images, Webb has delivered on its incredible promise. More postcards from the edge of the universe are bound to show up in the coming months.
Which means the world’s fun with Webb has only just begun.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)