From the oldest galaxies the human eyes have ever seen to the dramatic and spectacular death of stars, JWST kickstarts a new era in the field of astronomy with its first release of images on our universe.
This week NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) stunned the globe with its first release of the cosmic orchestra playing out in the universe. JWST, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and currently the most powerful space telescope, captured four images of our universe in incredible detail. The images are gathered by the telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to collect wavelengths of light blocked by our planet’s atmosphere to produce the sharpest infrared snapshots of the universe known to man. From the oldest galaxies the human eyes have ever seen to the dramatic and spectacular death of stars, let us tag along with JWST on its ride around the cosmos.
Our visual feast begins with the largest image released by JWST — Stephen’s Quintet. This cluster of five galaxies details the swarming bodies of millions of young stars and regions with intense glow from the birth of new stars. An entourage of gas, dust and stars are stripped away as the galaxies move along to the gravitational dance between the stellar masses. JWST’s MIRI instrument captures the huge shock waves, in fiery bursts of gold and red, as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, ruptures the cluster.
These galaxies reside as far away as 290 million light-years away, which are considered relatively nearby in the field of astronomy, where many galaxies are observed to be billions of light years away. Being able to study these galaxies “nearer” to Earth allows astronomers to better understand the cosmic anatomy and parallel the study to a much more distant universe. Witnessing the lifecycle of stars and the interaction between galaxies, especially in such intricate detail and proximity, enables scientists to study galactic evolution in depth. As such, Stephan’s Quintet is a remarkable model to research on the processes fundamental to all galaxies.
Next up is the elusive process of starbirth occurring at the northwest corner of the Carina Nebula. The billowing cloud, littered with glittering, young stars and the ingredients needed to birth new stars, is also referred to as “cosmic cliffs”. This mountainous-looking region of Carina is alive with violent activity from intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from the nursery of extremely massive, hot, young stars. The height of the “peaks” in this image can go up to a couple of light years high, with the tallest ones at about 7 light-years high.
As the young stars leave their birthplace, they sculpt their way out of the nebula with blazing ultraviolet radiation to rise above their younger siblings. The pillars of blue “steam” towering above the nebula are nothing but hot, ionized gas and hot dust produced from the intense radiation. This elusive event is entirely veiled in visible-light images. But JWST’s extreme sensitivity, spatial resolution and imaging capability has gifted us the opportunity to witness the birth and the coming of age of stars.
While we were able to witness the birth of stars in the previous image, these two images of the same Southern Ring Nebula show us the final moments of a dying star. This side-by-side comparison exhibits both the near-infrared light image (left) and mid-infrared light image (right) of the Southern Ring Nebula from JWST. Taking place some 2,500 light years away, this performance was enacted by a white dwarf star in the violent throes of its final moment as it emitted gas and dust, forming the entire planetary nebula.
The mid-infrared light image also captured a brighter and younger companion closely orbiting the dimmer white dwarf. While this star is not yet on its deathbed, it is helping to distribute what its partner ejected. As both stars tango around the the center of the Southern Ring Nebula, they light up the outer areas of the nebula in orange (left image) and blue (right image), while the white dwarf heats up the gas in the inner region, which appear to be blue (left image) and red (right image). This star definitely knew how to go out with a bang!
Finally, we arrive at the most anticipated and jaw-dropping image produced by JWST — Webb’s First Deep Field. This star studded snapshot is the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe we have attained so far. Swarming with galaxies, this kaleidoscopic near-infrared image is only about the miniscule size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length, a fragment of the universe. In its greatest feat of peering far into the cosmos, the JWST managed to capture the brilliance of this mega galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, bejeweled with scores of galaxies.
JWST’s imaging capabilities is not the only factor in rendering this image. A view of distant galaxies as great as this would not have been possible without gravitational lensing, created by the mass of the galaxy cluster, that magnifies more distant and older galaxies. In the image itself, cosmic elements further away appear redder in infrared light, while those nearer to us appear lighter. In fact, there are specks of red in the snapshot that are galaxies from the early universe, just a few million years after the Big Bang!
In this cosmic ocean, mankind is always in search of answers to questions about the universe, galaxies, stars and his origin. Part of his efforts in this quest includes JWST. There have been many areas of the universe that were once invisible, but we are now able to witness thanks to JWST and the team behind the telescope. JWST promises a new era in the field of astronomy and the best of the telescope is only yet to come.