In a single month, the James Webb Space Telescope has seen the oldest galaxies, messy cosmic collisions, and a hot gas planet's atmosphere
- In the month since the James Webb Space Telescope released its first images, it's captured brand-new views of the cosmos.
- The $10-billion space telescope launched in December 2021 and arrived at its destination beyond the moon's orbit in January.
The James Webb Space Telescope only been fully operational for a month, but in that time, it's allowed astronomers to peer father into the universe than ever before and changed how we see the cosmos.
Often described as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb 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 a gravitationally stable orbit, collecting infrared light. By gathering infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, Webb is able to 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's been flooding researchers with observations of distant cosmic objects. For astronomers, these pictures are just the beginning.
Behold some of the most stunning images shared in the telescope's first month of observations.
Deep infrared images
The first peek at what Webb could capture was a "deep field" image — a long-exposure observation of a region of the sky, which allows the telescope to capture the light of extremely faint, distant objects.
If you held a grain of sand at arm's length, that would represent the speck of universe you see in this image, Bill Nelson, NASA's administrator, told President Joe Biden in a White House briefing on July 11.
Because it takes time for light to travel, some of the light in the new image is more than 13 billion years old. That's less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang.
For this deep field image, Webb pointed its powerful infrared camera to SMACS 0723, a massive group of galaxy clusters that act as a magnifying glass for the objects behind them. The streaks of light are galaxies stretched out by the powerful gravitational pull of SMACS 0723, a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.
The image took less than a day to capture, according to NASA.
Observations of most distant galaxies
One of the new telescope's main goals is to find galaxies so distant that their light travels almost the entire history of the universe to reach Webb. NASA says Webb is able to peer farther than other telescopes, like Hubble, and discover galaxies as far back as the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
Already, astronomers have spotted what appears to be among the most distant galaxies we've ever laid eyes on.
In a study published to the pre-print service Arxiv on July 25, researchers observed a galaxy — named CEERS-93316 — which they believe emerged 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, dating to 300 million years after the Big Bang.
To confirm both galaxies' ages, researchers will need to do follow-up spectroscopic observations.
Dramatic cosmic collisions
In August, the Webb telescope captured a snapshot of the Cartwheel Galaxy in greater detail than ever before.
Located 500 million light-years away in the Sculptor constellation, the Cartwheel Galaxy is a rare ring galaxy that formed following a collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller one, giving it the appearance of a wagon wheel. It has two rings — a bright inner ring and a colorful outer one that ripples outward from the middle of the collision.
The outer ring has been expanding from the center of the collision for around 440 million years. When it expands and hits surrounding gas, stars form.
In the photo above, pockets of star formation appear as blue dots in the red swirls of dust. 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 in shape and structure in the future, NASA said in a press release on August 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 has evolved over billions of years, the space agency said.
Our own solar neighborhood
Though the space telescope's infrared gaze allows astronomers to observe across astonishingly cosmic distances, it can image closer, more familiar objects, too. In July, NASA released a series of new Webb images showing Jupiter in stunning detail.
Alongside the gas giant are its moons Europa, Thebe, and Metis. Scientists think Europa has a saltwater ocean, deep below its thick ice crust, which could harbor alien life.
Studying other worlds
Astronomers also hope that Webb telescope will reveal whether distant worlds harbor atmospheres that might support life.
"With the James Webb Space Telescope, we can explore the chemical makeup of the atmosphere of other worlds — and if there are signs in it that we can only explain by life," Lisa Kaltenegger, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, previously told Insider.
There are 70 planets scheduled for study in Webb's first year. As part of its first batch of observations, Webb captured 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 that orbits a distant star like our sun.
"It is an amazing time in our exploration of the cosmos," Kaltenegger said, adding, "Are we alone? This amazing space telescope is the first-ever tool that collects enough light for us to start figuring this fundamental question out."
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