Webb Telescope’s First Images–A Bright Past Promising A Brighter Future

Issue 1, Volume 113

By Khandaker Mushfikuzzaman 

The wait is over. We have finally received the highly anticipated first images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which launched at the end of 2021. After it reached Lagrange point two, a position in space where the gravitational forces of objects are balanced, on January 24, 2022, the telescope underwent all necessary procedures, such as the unfolding of the golden mirror, telescope alignment, and instrument turn-on. With all going according to plan, JWST has successfully started its scientific operations and has delivered its first snapshots of the cosmos.

President Joe Biden released the very first image taken by JWST to the public on July 11, 2022. NASA’s Webb took only a day to capture the deepest infrared image of the universe yet. Brimming with thousands of galaxies, Webb’s first deep field is the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. The picture is the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length in the night sky. Containing some of the most obscure objects ever observed, the total mass of the galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, which is why some of the galaxies appear distorted around the cluster. JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera (NirCam) captured SMACS 0723 as it was 4.6 billion years ago, composing images at different wavelengths all together in a matter of 12.5 hours. The photo outshines the deep fields taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which took weeks to process. As said by NASA, this is only the beginning of Webb's infrared abilities, and we will receive further information on the distant phenomena in the image as astronomers review what the image reveals about our early universe.

The next day, July 12, we received four more pictures during a ceremony at Goddard Space Flight Center. The next in the gallery is Stephan’s Quintet, Webb’s largest image so far. The 150 million pixel image, constructed out of 1,000 images, displays the grouping of five striking galaxies. Four out of the quintet are caught up in a “cosmic dance” and are in the process of colliding and merging. These four galaxies are located 290 million light-years from Earth while the fifth is located 40 million light-years away. Compared to other galaxies, these galaxies are relatively close, allowing scientists to better understand the significance of merging galaxies in galaxy evolution.

Compact groups like Stephan’s Quintet were more present in the early universe when it was superheated, which possibly caused quasars, or extremely powerful black holes. In fact, the uppermost galaxy in the image, NGC 7319, has an active galactic nucleus. Using its Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), Webb collected data on the supermassive black hole that’s actively pulling in and putting out energy equivalent to 40 billion Suns. This image will be key in shedding insights on how interactions between galaxies shaped the early universe.

Next up in Webb’s cosmic showcase are two images focused on the Southern Ring planetary nebula, located 2,500 light-years away. Using NirCam and MIRI, Webb has revealed details on this cloud of gas and dust ejected from dying stars that we call a nebula. While the image with NirCam conveys the layers of light from the stars, the one with MIRI has revealed that the second star is surrounded by dust. This indicates that the first star is at an earlier stage in comparison to its neighbor. It will produce its own nebula in the future, influencing the current nebula’s appearance in the meantime. The images look very different because the instruments used to take them operate at different wavelengths. Through the NirCam Image, researchers can observe the shells of dust produced by the older star. Identifying the molecules present in the thousands-of-years-old layers will renew our knowledge on these space nurseries.

The final of the five images from JWST is of the glittering “Cosmic Cliffs.” The breathtaking photo encapsulates, in infrared light, the Carina Nebula in all its glory. Gargantuan stars at the center of the “peaks,” which are seven light-years high, cause scorching ultraviolet radiation. The carved and eroded areas from the nebula and hot, ionized “steam” are due to this radiation. Webb was able to pry through the stellar dust covering this star-birthing place and expose objects in early star formation that are typically difficult to uncover. The effects of larger stars are very clear while these low-mass younger stars are less well-known. From this image we can see smaller stars create narrow jets which insert tons of energy into the dust clouds. Webb will help astronomers survey the amount of these smaller stars and their impact on the nebula, providing a broader sense of star formation.

In addition to these first five images, JWST has also captured evidence of water in the clouds of WASP-96 b, a planet orbiting a Sun-like star. One of the 5,000 confirmed exoplanets in the Milky Way, WASP-96 is a gas giant that is half the mass of Jupiter and 1.2 times greater the diameter. Using its Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), Webb measured light from the exoplanet, confirming its size and orbit and more importantly, revealing previously unknown details of its water-abundant atmosphere. Researchers will be able to use JWST’s exceptional technology to further research exoplanets like these and perhaps even uncover possibilities of life on them. To add to the telescope’s rapid accomplishments, Webb has also taken photos of the Cartwheel galaxy, released on August 2, and a riveting new view of Jupiter in infrared light on August 22.

It’s electrifying to see the huge success JWST has been, with photos as beautiful as the critical information about our universe they hold. It’s even more invigorating to think of what comes next as the telescope promises to share the enthralling secrets of the universe yet to be unveiled.