May 29, 2023
The James Webb Telescope's most impressive photos this year

The James Webb Telescope’s most impressive photos this year

It’s been a year since the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope and it’s been mesmerizing us with breathtaking images from space.

Our naked eye could never see what a telescope sees: traveling through light and space, James Webb can see the origins of the universe – something our minds can hardly begin to comprehend.

Acting like a time machine, the first images shared by this powerful telescope on July 12 showed us distant galaxies, the death of stars and the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system.

Below are some of the most impressive photos released so far.

A deeper look at the Pillars of Creation

The James Webb Telescope has captured a highly detailed image of the iconic Pillars of Creation – first made famous by images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 – where new stars form within dense clouds of gas and dust.

3D pillars look like rock formations but are much more permeable. These plumes are composed of cold interstellar gas and dust that appear—at times—translucent in near-infrared light.

Based on images taken in 1995 and 2014, Webb’s new view of the Pillars of Creation will help researchers update star formation models by pinpointing much more precise numbers of newly formed stars, along with the amounts of gas and dust in the region.

Over time, they will begin to build a clearer understanding of how stars form and erupt from these dusty clouds over millions of years.

On October 28, NASA released a second image of the Pillars of Creation, this time as seen by the Webb Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). And it’s elemental—in NASA’s words, this extremely dusty rendering makes it both grim and “creepy.”

This is because, while mid-infrared light specializes in detailing the location of dust, at these wavelengths, most of the surrounding stars are not bright enough to be seen.

“Instead, these looming, leaden columns of gas and dust shimmer at their edges, suggesting activity within.” NASA explained.

Thousands of new stars in the Tarantula Nebula

In images released by NASA in September, the 30 Doradus Nebula appears to be on display in all its glory.

Nicknamed the Tarantula Nebula, it is a favorite of star-forming astronomers as one of the largest and brightest star-forming regions in the galaxies closest to our Milky Way.

The Tarantula Nebula is located 161,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy. It got its name from the long dusty threads that look like spider legs in older pictures.

The James Webb Telescope, however, records the stellar nursery in new levels of clarity, revealing tens of thousands of never-before-seen young stars that were previously covered in cosmic dust.

Iconic Phantom Galaxy

This stunning image is of the so-called Phantom Galaxy (M74). Webb’s ability to capture longer wavelengths of light allows scientists to pinpoint star-forming regions in galaxies like this one.

This image reveals masses of gas and dust in the galaxy’s arms and a dense cluster of stars in its core.

First direct image of a distant exoplanet

NASA also released unprecedented observations of a planet outside our solar system, using the powerful infrared gaze of the James Webb Space Telescope to reveal new details that ground-based telescopes would not be able to detect.

The image of the exoplanet HIP 65426 b, a gas giant with a mass of about six to 12 times the mass of Jupiter, is the first time the Webb telescope has taken a direct image of a planet beyond the solar system.

“This is a transformative moment, not just for Webb but for astronomy in general,” said Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the UK, who led these observations.

Taking direct images of exoplanets is challenging because stars are much brighter than planets, NASA says.

Located 355 light-years from Earth, HIP 65426 b is about 15 to 20 million years old, compared to our Earth, which is 4.5 billion years old.

It’s 100 times farther from its host star than Earth is from the Sun, so it’s far enough from the star that Webb can easily separate the planet from the star in the image. But it is also more than 10,000 times fainter than its host star in the near-infrared and a few thousand times fainter in the mid-infrared.

“Getting this image was like hunting for space treasure,” said Aarynn Carter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the analysis of the images.

“At first all I could see was light from the star, but with careful image processing I was able to remove that light and reveal the planet.”

Jupiter and its moons like you’ve never seen them before

NASA scientists also released new footage of the solar system’s largest planet, describing the results as “pretty incredible”.

The James Webb telescope took the pictures in July, capturing unprecedented views of Jupiter’s northern and southern auroras and swirling polar fog. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a storm large enough to engulf Earth, stands out starkly next to countless smaller storms.

A wide-field image is particularly dramatic, showing the faint rings around the planet, as well as two tiny moons against a sparkling background of galaxies.

“We’ve never seen Jupiter like this. It’s all incredible,” said planetary astronomer Imke de Pater, of the University of California, Berkeley, who helped with the observations.

“We didn’t really expect it to be this good, to be honest,” he added in a statement.

The infrared images were artificially colored in blue, white, green, yellow and orange, according to the US-French research team, to make the features stand out.

Other discoveries: How the Cartwheel Galaxy is changing

The latest images come just weeks after another batch of images taken by the James Webb team showed us the Cartwheel Galaxy at greater depth, taking us another step in our understanding of the universe by showing us what happens after two galaxies collide.

Looking through the cosmic dust created by the collision with its infrared cameras, the telescope gave us a picture of how the Cartwheel Galaxy changed after a collision with another smaller galaxy billions of years ago.

Scientists believe that the Cartwheel Galaxy, a ring galaxy more than 500 million light-years from our planet that owes its name to its bright inner ring and colorful outer ring, was once part of a large spiral like the Milky Way before crash another galaxy.

The galaxy’s entire appearance, which reminded scientists of a wagon wheel, is due to this high-speed collision, according to NASA. From the center of the collision, the galaxy’s two rings expand outward, creating this rare ring shape.

Scientists have never before been able to clearly see and understand the chaos of the Cartwheel galaxy.

The Hubble Space Telescope had already looked inside the galaxy, but the amount of dust surrounding the Cartwheel Galaxy prevented the telescope from observing the phenomena taking place inside the galaxy.

But now, thanks to the infrared cameras of the James Webb Telescope, scientists are able to examine the bright center of the galaxy.

To do this, an image is created by combining Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which can see through dust and reveal wavelengths of light that are impossible to observe in visible light conditions.

The resulting image shows the formation of stars in the wake of the collision of galaxies – a process that is not yet fully understood.

The bright core at the center of the galaxy contains hot dust, NASA says, with the brightest regions hosting giant young star clusters.

What you can see in the outer ring, on the other hand, is the formation of new stars.

The Cartwheel Galaxy is still going through changes and will continue to morph, promising to reveal more secrets about how galaxies evolve over time, even though it may take billions of years.

The $10 billion (€9.4 billion) successor to NASA and the European Space Agency’s Hubble Space Telescope launched on December 25, 2021, and has been observing the world in the infrared since the summer.

Scientists hope to see the dawn of the universe with Webb, looking back to the time when the first stars and galaxies formed 13.7 billion years ago.

The observatory is located 1.6 million kilometers from Earth.

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