NASA's James Webb telescope released its first images Tuesday, previewing the boundary-pushing research to come.
Nearly seven months after its launch, images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope were publicly released by NASA on Monday and Tuesday.
The first image, released by President Biden on Monday, astounded scientists and math-phobes alike. This deep field snapshot of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 provided a glimpse far back in time, revealing faint, distant galaxies in stunning detail.
Webb is an infrared telescope, with “capabilities that dwarf those of previous infrared telescopes” according to Louis Allamandola, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
Often figured as Hubble’s successor, the Webb telescope is able to detect objects 10 to 100 times fainter than Hubble can see. Furthermore, as Webb detects longer, redder wavelengths – with a range between 0.6 to 28 micrometers vs. Hubble’s 0.2 to 2.4-micrometer range – it is able to pick up on much more distant objects, seeing further back in time.
This is due to a phenomenon known as redshifting. Since the universe is expanding (and accelerating), light waves from faraway objects are stretched as they travel through space, making radiation appear much redder once it reaches us. Distant objects are red-shifted so much that even their high-energy radiation can only be detected by telescopes with infrared capabilities.
As such, the Webb telescope will be instrumental in researching the early universe, particularly in studying early galaxies and star formation. John Mather, a Senior Project Scientist for the telescope, said that the telescope was created “to see a period of the universe’s history that we have not seen yet before. Specifically, we want to see the first objects that formed as the universe cooled down after the Big Bang… We don’t know exactly when the universe made the first stars and galaxies – or how for that matter. That is what we are building JWST to help answer.”
For researchers studying nebulae—gas and dust clouds that are often rich zones for star birth—Webb’s infrared imaging will be incredibly useful. Near-infrared radiation in particular can cut through obscuring gas and dust, revealing the young stars enclosed within nebulae.
Webb’s image of the “cosmic cliffs” of the Carina Nebula reveals stars never seen before, exemplifying how important the telescope’s near-infrared capabilities will be in researching why and how stars form.
Exoplanet studies will also be greatly bolstered by the telescope’s spectroscopic capabilities. Spectra, which split incoming light radiation into its component wavelengths, serve as chemical fingerprints for the objects being studied. One use of exoplanet spectra is to determine the elements present in planetary atmospheres – an essential part of determining a planet’s potential habitability.
In the case of WASP-96 b, researchers used Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NISS) to analyze the chemical composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere, noting the presence of water vapor.
Other released images included the Southern Ring Nebula and “Stephan’s Quintet” of merging galaxies.
After a slew of logistical issues and delays, Webb’s success is a thrill to astronomy enthusiasts of all skill levels. Given the telescope’s 1.6 million Instagram followers (and counting!), its future breathtaking images and boundary-pushing research are sure to be followed closely.