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What We’ve Learned From James Webbs Incredible New Images

Written by Kevin Jennings

Just over a year ago, we talked about the then upcoming launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The project was already overdue and over budget, with the expected launch at the time to take place on Halloween, 2021. It was a rather ominous day to schedule the launch, but less than a month after the original Megaprojects post the JWST found its launch being delayed yet again.

            Sticking with the holiday theme, after nearly two months of additional delays the JWST launch at 12:20 UTC on Christmas morning, 2021. After 30 days, it reached its final destination: the L2 Lagrange point, 150 million kilometers (94.5 million miles) away from Earth. There it will maintain a halo orbit around Earth. However, an L2 orbit is unstable, and so the JWST will have to use propellant to make minor course corrections to ensure it doesn’t drift out of orbit.

            The original plan was to ensure the JWST would have enough fuel for at least five years, with the hope being that efficient conservation of fuel would allow them to stretch out the mission to ten years. However, the launch was such a resounding success that now scientists are hoping to stretch that fuel even further.

            When the telescope was launched, it was intentionally done so with less speed than it would need to reach L2 orbit. The design of the apparatus required that the sunshield remain facing the sun at all times to protect the highly sensitive equipment. This meant that while the JWST could use its fuel to accelerate if it was going too slowly, it could not turn around and thrust in reverse if it was launched at too high a speed.

            Over the course of the month long trek to L2 orbit, there were three scheduled course corrections to ensure the JWST reached its intended destination. However, because both the initial launch and the first of these three scheduled course corrections were so accurate, the majority of the fuel allotted for simply getting the telescope into orbit remained unused. Scientists are now hoping that instead of pushing for a ten year lifespan of the telescope instead of only five, it may be possible to extend it all the way to 20 years.

            The JWST began capturing images of deep space on February 2. On July 11, the first image from the telescope was revealed to the public. The following day, a press conference was held revealing all five images that are currently available to the public. To say the least, the results were utterly astounding.

The Carina Nebula

            To give an example of just how extraordinary these new photos, we’ll be showing the new images from the JWST side by side with images of the same part of the sky as taken by the Hubble Telescope.

            First, we see the Carina Nebula. The Hubble Telescope had been designed to capture visible light and ultraviolet light, but only a little bit of infrared light. The JWST is primarily an infrared telescope, focusing on both near infrared, which is just below visible light, and mid infrared, which features much longer wavelengths. This, along with its massive size, is what allows is to see images in much greater clarity and resolution.

https://flic.kr/p/2nxMxWw

            The universe is expanding, and the objects we see in the sky are moving away from us. As they continue to move away, the light waves get stretched out in a phenomenon known as redshifting. Redshifting is essentially the cosmic version of the Doppler Effect. Because the JWST is focused on capturing this infrared light, it allows us to not only see the stars more clearly, but we can see much older light than was possible with the Hubble Telescope. This older light is the light emitted from stars even further away than we have previously seen.

            The images of the Carina Nebula are the perfect example of exactly how much this technology has to offer. The first image, provided by Hubble, looks like what we think of when we think of space. We see a cloudy nebula seeming to emit a vapor or dust cloud, obscuring the stars behind it. To be fair, the reason this is what most of us think of when we think of far off in space is because these are the images that we’ve seen for the past 30 plus years.

            By contrast, the image from JWST has such high resolution that it almost doesn’t even seem real. It looks like a gorgeous painting or computer animation of some ethereal mountainside under a sky of dazzling stars. The new clarity with which we can see the universe is truly remarkable.

            In this one section of sky alone, there are countless stars now visible that could never be seen before. Not only that, but we have a much clearer view of the nebula itself. Measuring to the highest peak of the “mountain”, the Carina Nebula is roughly 7 light years tall. That’s over 1.6 times the distance from Earth to Proxima Centauri, the star closest to us. Or if light years are too difficult to visualize, the nebula is just over 66 trillion kilometers high.

            What makes this image particularly special is that stars are both dying and being born in this region of the Carina Nebula, known by the catchy nickname of NGC 3324. The problem with stars dying is that it creates dust made up of heavier elements that block out visible light, resulting in the cloudier images we saw before. With the new images that utilize infrared’s ability to pass by these dust particles, we can see areas where stars are being born that were previously invisible to us.

Stephan’s Quintet

            Every December, millions of people turn on their TVs to get a look at footage of Stephan’s Quintet. Featured in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, albeit in extraordinarily low quality, Stephan’s Quintet is a cluster of five galaxies that are so close together we can watch how they interact with one another.

https://flic.kr/p/2fsSGc2 The Hubble image
https://flic.kr/p/2nxESto The James Webb Space Telescope image

            Once again we see the image from Hubble on the top and from JWST on the bottom. The image from JWST is actually a composite, showing the picture from its near infrared camera overlaid on the image from the mid infrared camera. One of the most striking things about this image is the galaxy on the left.

            In the image from Hubble, there are some individual stars that are clearly visible, though much of the image is a bit blurry and looks like a cloud. With the new JWST image, we can clearly see innumerable individual stars. These galaxies are 290 million light years away, and the average galaxy has around 100 million stars. Given how tiny these stars would be at this distance and how many of them there are clumped together, it’s nothing short of a scientific miracle that we can see so many individual stars so clearly in this image.

            If instead of looking at the composite image of Stephan’s Quintet we instead look only at the mid infrared image, we see something even more remarkable. First, we can clearly see the shape of the dust clouds of the left galaxy. These clouds are important for the creation of new stars, and there is a lot we can learn from being able to observe them so clearly.

            When you first saw this mid infrared image, your eyes probably immediately gravitated to the single, bright light in the center of the uppermost galaxy. It is so bright compared to the rest of the image, that one of the last things most people would guess this could be is a growing super massive black hole.

            As gases, such as hydrogen, start to swirl around the black hole at extreme speeds, they heat up to the point that they begin to glow, particularly in infrared light. By using spectrum analysis on the images, we can see what elements and in what quantities are responsible for the glow around the black hole, from which we can determine its mass. In addition to the infrared images, there was a large amount of this wavelength data released for those that are interested.

Southern Ring Nebula

            Like the Carina Nebula, the Southern Ring Nebula resides within the Milky Way galaxy. The Carina Nebula is approximately 7,000 light years away, while the Southern Ring Nebula is only 2,000 light years away.

            This nebula is the result of a star similar to our sun that reached the end of its life, shedding its outer layers and become a white dwarf star. The white dwarf is the bright light in the center of the nebula, while all the surrounding dust is made up of the materials shed by the dying star.

https://flic.kr/p/ZxvZyb The Hubble image
https://flic.kr/p/2nxL1uK The James Webb Space Telescope image

            From the structure and colours of the nebula, we can tell how hot different areas are as well as essentially looking back through time to see each pulse as the star died. These images are from Hubble on the left and JWST’s near infrared camera on the right, however something rather surprising is hiding when looking at the mid infrared image.

            Here we can clearly see that at the center of the Southern Ring Nebula is not one but two stars. This was already known to astrophysicists as it had been discovered by the Hubble Telescope in 1998, but we have never had such a clear image of the two distinct stars before.

            The bright star seen in the near infrared image is actually a living star, still undergoing its normal, celestial business. With the mid infrared camera, we can see both the hotter, brighter star and the cooler white dwarf. These stars orbit around each other which also contributes to the shape of the nebula.

SMACS 0723

            SMACS 0723 is a cluster of galaxies in the constellation Volans in the southern sky. This image is JWST’s first deep field image, an image that focuses between visible celestial bodies and magnifies the seeming blackness of space. The level of detail and the increased quantity of visible galaxies is once again remarkable.

https://flic.kr/p/2nxDLXn

            Most of the galaxies we can see are approximately 4.6 billion light years away, however there are some exceptions. First, there are a couple particularly bright individual stars in the image. These stars are still part of the Milky Way galaxy.

            Beyond the stars of our galaxy and even the cluster of galaxies encompassing most of the image, there is something else hiding. Scattered throughout you can see bits of red light that look elongated or stretched out. This is the oldest light ever observed, with some of these dating back as far as 13.1 billion years ago.

            The universe itself is believed to be 13.7 billion years old, and in just a few short months of operation the JWST has already managed to peer within 600 million years of the universe’s origin. However, it is believed that the JWST should be able to see back even further, to within 250-300 million years of the Big Bang.

            In this image, as with the others, there is simply so much to see and analyze. This is a monumental amount of new information, and even images that were focusing on the nebulas within the Milky Way have revealed entire galaxies that were previously obscured by the clouds of dust blocking out those galaxy’s visible light.

            For all the objects we can see in this image, it’s important to remember the scale that we are dealing with. Although there are so many galaxies in this picture they appear as though they could fill the entire night’s sky, this is only the tiniest fraction of what there is to observe. According to the official NASA Webb Telescope Twitter account, “If you held a grain of sand up to the sky at arm’s length, that tiny speck is the size of Webb’s view in this image.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

            So far, the most important takeaways from the images from the JWST are just what the telescope is capable of. This project was over 25 years in the making, and until these first images were released there was no way to be sure what exactly would be possible. There is a lot of excitement from astrophysicists surrounding the capabilities of the telescope, and there was a fair amount of genuine surprise at the stunning clarity with which we can see such distant objects in our universe.

            Now that scientists know what the telescope is truly capable of, the next step is for them to figure out how they can use it and apply it to their research. One such example of potential uses for the JWST comes from the final image released, which was a graph rather than a picture of the sky.

https://flic.kr/p/SWogEx

            The graph showed spectrum analysis of the exoplanet WASP-96b. WASP-96b is a gas giant with roughly half the mass of Jupiter, but it has an extremely close orbit to its sun. The distance from WASP-96b and its sun is only 1/9 the distance between our sun and Mercury. The planet orbits its sun every 3.5 days, and has an average temperate of 1,285 Kelvin.

            Despite being a gas giant with extreme temperatures, the spectrum analysis held within it a major surprise. Not only is the planet’s atmosphere seemingly full of clouds, something that was previously believed not to be the case, but those clouds are made up of good old fashioned H2O.

            This suggests that water may be far more abundant in our universe than previously believed. One likely use of the JWST in the future will be to run similar analysis on Earth-like planets, where we may be fortunate enough to find some equally surprising results.

            Currently, the possibilities for the JWST are endless and it seems to have surpassed expectations. It could aid in identifying planets that are capable of supporting life as we know it, provide valuable data on the forming of stars, peer back in time to nearly the beginning of the universe, and even unlock some of the mysteries surrounding dark matter. With so much potential for scientific discovery, the only question left for the JWST is where to begin.

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