Star nursery space rocks and a quintet of galaxies linked in a celestial dance: NASA released another wave of images from the James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday, ushering in a new era of astronomy.
“Every image is a new discovery,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “Each of them will give humanity a view of the universe that we have never seen before.”
Released one after the other from Maryland’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the new images showcase the power of a $14 billion observatory that uses infrared cameras to view the distant universe with unprecedented clarity.
“They’re beautiful and full of great discoveries and science, and there’s a lot of stuff in there that we haven’t identified,” Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist and Webb Project Senior Scientist John Mather told AFP.
On Monday, Webb showed the clearest image to date of the early universe, teeming with thousands of galaxies over 13 billion years old.
This image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows what is considered the “deepest” and most detailed picture of the cosmos to date. Known as the First Webb Deep Field, this image shows a cluster of galaxies called SMACS 0723 that appeared 4.6 billion years ago. Credit: ESA/PA
The latest tranche included the “mountains” and “valleys” of a star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula, dubbed “Space Rocks”, 7,600 light-years away.
“For the first time, we are seeing completely new stars that were previously completely hidden from our view,” said NASA astrophysicist Amber Strawn.
What looks like rocky mountains on a lunar evening are actually the edge of nearby young star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Source: ABACUS / ABACA / Pennsylvania
Star nurseries and cemeteries
Webb also revealed never-before-seen details of the Stefan Quintet, a group of five galaxies, including four that repeatedly approached each other, providing insight into how early galaxies formed at the beginning of the universe.
At the center of the cluster is a black hole called an active galactic nucleus, “meaning things flow in, get heated up to high temperatures, and some of it gets spit out again,” Mather explained.
The huge Stephen’s Quintet mosaic is the largest image to date taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, covering about one-fifth of the moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and consists of nearly 1,000 individual image files. Source: ABACUS / ABACA / Pennsylvania
Studying the black hole will allow scientists to better understand the one at the center of our Milky Way called Sagittarius A*.
For the first time, the dim star at the center of the South Rim Nebula has been found to be shrouded in dust as it erupts rings of gas and dust in its death throes.
Understanding the molecules present in such stellar graveyards could help scientists learn more about the process of stellar death.
The telescope also described in detail the water vapor in the atmosphere of the distant giant gas planet.
Spectroscopy – an analysis of light that provides detailed information – was made for the planet WASP-96 b, discovered in 2014.
The scientists then hope to train spectrographic instruments on small, rocky worlds like ours to look for signs of habitability.
Fundamental discoveries are expected
The first images of Webb made a splash in the space community and will also be shown on giant screens in Times Square in New York and London.
Launched in December 2021 from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket, Webb orbits the sun at a distance of 1.6 million kilometers from Earth in a region of space called the second Lagrange point.
It remains in a fixed position relative to the Earth and the Sun with minimal fuel consumption for course correction and maneuvering of its instruments.
A marvel of engineering, Webb is one of the most expensive science platforms to date, comparable to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and one of the most complex machines ever built.
Webb’s primary mirror is over 6.5 meters wide and consists of 18 gold-coated mirror segments. Much like a camera being held in the hand, the design must remain very still for the best shots, and Webb engineers have minimized its wobble to 17 millionths of a millimeter.
Technicians lift the mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope with a crane at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: Laura Betz / AP
Its pointing accuracy is equivalent to firing a bullet from Washington and hitting a coin on top of a tower in Los Angeles, Charlie Atkinson, chief engineer at its principal builder Northrop Grumman, told AFP.
After the first images, astronomers around the world will receive a share of the time spent in the telescope, with projects being selected competitively through a process where applicants and selectors do not know each other to minimize bias.
NASA estimates that Webb has enough fuel for a 20-year life thanks to an efficient launch, as he works with the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to answer fundamental questions about the cosmos, including some that scientists don’t yet know.
“We don’t know what we don’t already know,” Strawn said.
Hubble played a key role in the discovery that dark energy causes the universe to expand at an ever-increasing rate, “so it’s hard to imagine what we could learn with this 100 times more powerful instrument.”