After a presidential reveal Monday, NASA unveiled more spectacular “first light” pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope Tuesday, showcasing interacting galaxies, the death throes of a slowly dying star and a stellar nursery where massive young suns are being born and blazing light sculpts vast clouds of gas and dust.
Warmed up by cheerleaders chanting “J-W-S-T, J-W-S-T,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, senior agency managers and a throng of enthusiastic Webb engineers and scientists looked on at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as the new images were released, one at a time.
“In the words of the famous Carl Sagan, somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known,” Nelson said. “I think those words are becoming reality.”
First up was the the spectrum of starlight passing through the atmosphere of an exoplanet 1,150 light years from Earth, providing the chemical fingerprint of elements in the planet’s atmosphere.
Being able to dissect exoplanet atmospheres offers hope astronomers may someday be able to detect the effects of biological activity on planets in far-flung solar systems. With more powerful instruments on some future telescope, it may even be possible to detect byproducts of industrial activity.
No one is promising any such achievements from Webb, but the ability to analyze exoplanet atmospheres with the world’s most powerful infrared telescope is a major step in that direction.
“Every image is a new discovery, and each will give humanity a view of the universe that we’ve never seen before,” Nelson said.
Next up was a stunning view of the Southern Ring Nebula, a half lightyear-wide cloud of expanding gas and debris thrown off by a central star nearing the end of its life as its core runs out of nuclear fuel.
Again, the additional detail was obvious when compared to shots of the same nebula by the Hubble Space Telescope
Then came a mesmerizing image of Stephen’s Quintet, a well-known collection of five galaxies in the constellation Pegasus 290 million light years from Earth that was discovered in 1877, the first such close-together grouping of galaxies to be detected.
Four of the five galaxies are spirals that are gravitationally interacting in a slow-motion train wreck of sorts, in the process of merging to eventually become a single huge elliptical galaxy.
Galaxy mergers are a commonplace occurrence across the history of the universe, and studying the details of such collisions is one of Webb’s major objectives. Based on the image unveiled Tuesday, the telescope brings a powerful new tool to the astronomical workbench
Finally, the Webb team unveiled mind-boggling view showing a segment of the Carina Nebula, a vast star-forming region in the southern constellation Carina some 7,600 light years from Earth that’s four times as large as the more famous Orion Nebula.
Visible to the unaided eye from the Southern Hemisphere, the Carina Nebula is the home of the most luminous known star in the Milky Way as well as the Eta Carinae binary system, which includes a massive sun expected to explode in a supernova blast in the (astronomically) near future.
The portion of the nebula shown Tuesday is teeming with massive young stars as well as the remnants of supernova explosions marking the cataclysmic deaths of stars much more massive than the sun. Again, an extraordinary amount of detail is visible.
The images unveiled Tuesday followed an initial release Monday at the White House when President Biden revealed a razor-sharp “deep field” look at a cluster of remote galaxies with numerous arcs of light, the distorted views of background galaxies magnified by the cluster’s combined gravity.
Looking farther back in space and time than ever before, to within a few hundred million years of the moment the universe exploded into being 13.8 billion years ago, the image represents “a new window into the history of our universe,” Biden said.
Taken together, the pictures are clear proof, if any was needed, that Webb is finally ready to begin science operations six months after its Christmas Day launch and years of technical problems, management miscues and billions in cost overruns.
In the weeks and months since launch, scientists and engineers deployed and precisely aligned the 18 segments making up Webb’s 21.3-foot-wide mirror, unfurled a giant sunshade to help cool the optics to within a few degrees of absolute zero and carefully checked out and calibrated the observatory’s four instruments.
“I am so thrilled, and so relieved,” said John Mather, a Nobel Prize winner and senior scientist on the Webb project. “This was so hard, and it took so long. It’s just impossible to convey how hard it really was. We risked so much to say we’re going to go do this, and it’s so near impossible. But we did it.”
Unlike the iconic Hubble Space Telescope, which mostly observes light in the visible part of the spectrum, Webb is optimized to study longer-wavelength infrared radiation, allowing it to capture light from the dawn of the universe that’s been stretched out by the expansion of space itself over the past 13.8 billion years.
Capturing light from the first generation of stars and galaxies in the process of forming in the aftermath of the Big Bang is one of Webb’s primary objectives.
But the telescope also will be used to tackle other outstanding questions, charting the evolution of galaxies through time, how they grow and merge in cataclysmic collisions, the life cycles of stars from birth to death by supernova; and the nature of exoplanets that are as common as grains of sand across the Milky Way.
The pictures released Tuesday, along with the earlier deep field, showcase those broad themes, convincingly demonstrating that Webb, the most expensive science probe ever built, is up to the task.
More images are available here.