- In the month since the James Webb Space Telescope released its first images, it has 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.
- Webb is able to cut through cosmic dust, allowing astronomers to see further into the past than ever before.
The James Webb Space Telescope was only fully operational for a month, but during that time it allowed astronomers to peer into the universe like never before and changed the way we view the cosmos.
Often described as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb was launched on December 25, 2021, after more than two decades in development. Since then, the $10 billion telescope has traveled more than 1 million miles from Earth and is now parked 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 has been flooding researchers with sightings of distant cosmic objects. For astronomers, these images are just the start.
Here are some of the most stunning images shared during the telescope’s first month of observations.
The first look 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 light from extremely faint distant objects.
If you held a grain of sand at arm’s length, it would represent the grain of the universe you see in this image, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told President Joe Biden during a House briefing. White on July 11.
Because light takes time to travel, some of the light in the new image is over 13 billion years old. It’s less than a billion years after the Big Bang.
For this deep-field image, Webb pointed his powerful infrared camera at 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 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.
One of the main goals of the new telescope is to find galaxies so far away that their light travels nearly throughout the history of the universe to reach Webb. NASA says Webb is able to look further than other telescopes, like Hubble, and discover galaxies as early as the first hundred million years after the Big Bang.
Already, astronomers have spotted what appears to be one of the most distant galaxies we have ever seen.
In a study published on the preprint service Arxiv on July 25, researchers observed a galaxy – named CEERS-93316 – which they say emerged 235 million years after the Big Bang, making it the oldest galaxy never observed.
Also in July, astronomers discovered another distant collection of stars, gas and dust bound 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 the age of the two galaxies, researchers will need to perform follow-up spectroscopic observations.
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 constellation Sculptor, the Cartwheel Galaxy is a rare ring galaxy that formed from a collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller one, giving it the appearance of a wagon wheel. It has two rings – a glowing inner ring and a colored outer that ripples outward from the middle of the collision.
The outer ring has extended from the center of the collision for about 440 million years. When it expands and meets the surrounding gas, stars are formed.
In the photo above, pockets of star formation appear as blue dots within the red swirls of dust. To the left of the Cartwheel galaxy, Webb captured two other galaxies in the image above.
The Cartwheel galaxy was “likely a normal galaxy like the Milky Way before its collision” and will continue to change shape and structure in the future, NASA said in a press release Aug. 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.
Although the space telescope’s infrared gaze allows astronomers to peer across surprisingly cosmic distances, it can also image closer, more familiar objects. 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 believe that Europa has a saltwater ocean, deep below its thick icy crust, which could harbor extraterrestrial life.
Astronomers also hope the Webb Telescope will reveal whether distant worlds harbor atmospheres that could support life.
“With the James Webb Space Telescope, we can explore the chemical composition of the atmosphere of other worlds – and if there are any signs that we can only explain by life,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, Insider previously said.
There are 70 planets to study in Webb’s first year. As part of his first batch of observations, Webb captured the signature of water, along with undetected evidence of clouds and haze, in the atmosphere of WASP-96 b – a giant planet and at hot gas that orbits a distant star like our sun.
“This is an incredible time in our exploration of the cosmos,” Kaltenegger said, adding, “Are we alone? This incredible space telescope is the very first tool that collects enough light for us to begin to understand this fundamental question. “