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The James Webb Space Telescope has continued to capture dazzling interstellar scenery since the first batch of images was released in July. Recent discoveries highlight how useful Webb’s high-resolution, infrared capabilities really are.

As Webb’s infrared cameras plunge past visibly opaque gas and dust, previously obscured treasures are revealed. This is particularly useful in the case of nebulae, which are defined by their great clouds of cosmic dust and hydrogen gas, inside which stars are formed. Telescopes that operate in the visible range–like Hubble–only capture nebulae as multi-colored dusty swirls, blind to the young proto-stars behind the curtain.

Webb’s near-infrared camera can detect these colder, concealed stars due to its ability to detect lower temperatures and less energetic objects. In an image released last Wednesday of the so-called “Pillars of Creation,” Webb pierced through obscuring gas and dust (also provided by our own Milky Way) to capture the brewing star creation within. The bright red splotches dotting the edges of the pillars are especially notable, caused by very young stars emitting bursts of energy that collide with the surrounding material.

Adding to other near-infrared nebula images captured by Webb, such as the Carina Nebula, this image will greatly aid the research of star formation within nebulae, as scientists work to understand star formation rates and quantify populations.

Another major recent Webb-driven discovery centered on a far more powerful, mysterious object: a quasar, i.e. a very luminous, supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. This extremely redshifted quasar, with the beautiful, exotic name of SDSS J165202.64+172852.3, had been previously observed, but not in such incredible detail. 

With Webb’s near-infrared spectroscopic capabilities, the telescope can split captured light–like a prism–in order to analyze the chemical components of objects, especially very far and distant ones. 

The spectra of this quasar, and its host galaxy, were taken to image the quasar’s oxygen-heavy winds, sent a flurry by its powerful emissions. However, they also revealed unexpected details. The quasar was found to be clutching onto at least three galaxies, rather than just one or two merging, as was previously thought. 

A galaxy cluster of this nature is an exceptionally rare sight, particularly at such an early time in the universe’s life–approximately 11.5 billion years ago. 

Andrey Vayner, a Johns Hopkins astronomer involved in the research, suggested this discovery exemplifies the new frontier of infrared astronomy heralded by Webb. “The sensitivity of the NIRSpec instrument [Webb’s near-infrared spectrograph] was immediately apparent,” said Vayner. “It was clear to me that we are in a new era of infrared spectroscopy.”

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Georgia Michelman is a reluctant recent Yale College graduate with backgrounds in physics, astronomy, and history. She is always searching for intersections between the worlds of science and the humanities....