- In the month since the James Webb Space Telescope released its first images, it has captured brand new images of the cosmos.
- The $10 billion space telescope was launched in December 2021 and arrived at its destination beyond the moon’s orbit in January.
- Webb is able to cut through cosmic dust, allowing astronomers to see further into the past than ever before.
The James Webb Space Telescope has only been fully operational for a month, but in that time astronomers were able to see the universe more than ever before and changed the way we see the cosmos.
Webb, often described as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, was launched on December 25, 2021, after more than two decades of development. Since that time, the $10 billion telescope has traveled more than 1 million miles from Earth and is now stationed in gravity-stable orbit to collect infrared light. By collecting infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, Webb can cut through cosmic dust and see far into the past, to the first 400 million years after the Big Bang.
Since the telescope released its first batch of images in July, it has been flooding researchers with observations of distant cosmic objects. For astronomers, these photos are just the beginning.
Check out some of the most stunning images shared in the telescope’s first month of observations.
The first look at what Webb was able to capture was a “deep field” image — a long-exposure observation of part of the sky that allows the telescope to capture light from extremely faint, distant objects.
If you held a grain of sand at arm’s length, it would represent the speck of the universe you see in this image, NASA administrator Bill Nelson told President Joe Biden in a July 11 White House briefing.
Because light takes time to travel, some of the light in the new image is more than 13 billion years old. That is less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang.
For this deep-field image, Webb pointed his powerful infrared camera at SMACS 0723, a huge group of galaxy clusters that act as magnifying glasses for the objects behind them. The streaks of light are galaxies stretched by the powerful gravity of SMACS 0723, a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.
It took less than a day to capture the photo, according to NASA.
One of the main goals of the new telescope is to find galaxies so far away that their light travels almost the entire history of the universe to reach Webb. NASA says Webb can see beyond other telescopes, such as Hubble, and discover galaxies into the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
Astronomers have already seen what appears to be one of the most distant galaxies we have ever seen.
In a study published July 25 at the pre-print service Arxiv, researchers observed a galaxy — named CEERS-93316 — which they believe formed 235 million years after the Big Bang, making it the oldest galaxy ever observed.
Also in July, astronomers discovered another distant spinning collection of stars, gas and dust bound together by gravity. The galaxy, known as GLASS-z13, is 13.5 billion years old and dates back to 300 million years after the Big Bang.
To confirm the ages of both galaxies, researchers will need to make follow-up spectroscopic observations.
In August, the Webb Telescope captured a snapshot of the Cartwheel Galaxy in more detail than ever before.
Located 500 million light-years away in the constellation Sculptor, the Cartwheel Galaxy is a rare ring galaxy formed after a collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller galaxy, making it resemble a wagon wheel. It has two rings – a clear inner ring and a colorful outer one that ripples outwards from the center of the collision.
The outer ring has been expanding from the center of the collision for about 440 million years. When it expands and hits the surrounding gas, stars are formed.
In the above photo, star-forming pockets appear as blue dots in the red dust clouds. To the left of the Cartwheel Galaxy, Webb captured two other galaxies in the above image.
The Cartwheel Galaxy was “presumably a normal galaxy like the Milky Way before its collision” and will continue to change shape and structure in the future, NASA said in a press release on Aug. 2.
The new image reveals details about star formation and the black hole at the center of the galaxy, and sheds light on how the galaxy evolved over billions of years, the space agency said.
While the space telescope’s infrared view allows astronomers to observe astonishingly cosmic distances, it can also image closer, more familiar objects. In July, NASA released a series of new Webb images showing Jupiter in stunning detail.
In addition to the gas giant, the moons are Europa, Thebes and Metis. Scientists believe that Europa has a saltwater ocean, deep beneath its thick ice crust, that could harbor extraterrestrial life.
Astronomers also hope the Webb telescope will reveal whether distant worlds harbor atmospheres that may support life.
“The James Webb Space Telescope allows us to examine the chemical makeup of the atmospheres of other worlds — and if there are signs we can only explain through life,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomy professor at Cornell University and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, previously told Insider.
There are 70 planets planned for study in Webb’s first year. As part of his first set of observations, Webb recorded the signature of water, along with previously undetected evidence of clouds and haze, in the atmosphere of WASP-96 b – a giant and hot gas planet orbiting a distant star like our sun.
“It’s a great time in our exploration of the cosmos,” Kaltenegger said, adding, “Are we alone? This amazing space telescope is the very first tool to collect enough light to answer this fundamental question.”