The first five images from the James Webb Space Telescope, explained

NASA revealed five stunning images which demonstrate the immense observational capacity of the new space telescope

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 12, 2022 3:33PM (EDT)

James Webb Space Telescope looking at galaxies (Photo illustration by NASA)
James Webb Space Telescope looking at galaxies (Photo illustration by NASA)

It was a giddy Tuesday morning at NASA'S Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. At one point NASA Administrator Bill Nelson even joked that the mood was more akin to a pep rally than a stuffy scientific press conference.

Yet the joy was not misplaced. Long-awaited images produced by the groundbreaking James Webb Space Telescope were finally going to be revealed to the public. The five images ran the astronomical gamut: one was an image of some of the oldest and most distant objects in the universe; another was not a literal image, but observational data revealing the composition of the atmosphere of a planet in an alien solar system around 1000 light-years away. 

Nelson commented that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had asked to see the pictures in advance, and met in secrecy in the White House to do so.

They were "like kids," Nelson recalled. Another host commented that they "geeked out."

With characteristic optimism, Nelson ended the rally by promising that visits to the Moon and Mars were next on NASA's itinerary. It is unclear if the agency can back up that bravado; the history of American space exploration has contained many unfulfilled promises and disappointments.

Yet at least on Tuesday — with the revelation that the James Webb Space Telescope had abundantly succeeded in its mission — NASA could at least say, on this occasion: Mission accomplished.

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These are the five images that were revealed, and what each one means for humanity. 

1. SMACS 0723

SMACS 0723NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb's First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)This is not only the first full-color image to be produced by the James Webb Space Telescope; it is also, to date, the most clear and full infrared image of the distant universe ever produced.

"This image covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length. It's just a tiny sliver of the vast universe," Nelson explained in a statement. Another host commented that the telescope was so powerful, the scientists could not find a single spot where there was mere blank sky: "It's teeming with galaxies!"

One of the selling points of the James Webb Space Telescope is that it can detect infrared light — historically, the most difficult part of the electromagnetic spectrum for astronomers to observe. Indeed, from Earth's surface, infrared astronomy is virtually impossible because of all the infrared light generated on Earth from heat, and which is scattered in the atmosphere. Only in the darkness of space can a telescope like James Webb detect infrared light. That incredible ability allows for the space telescope to take images like this one, which would be impossible with even the largest ground-based telescope.

If you look carefully at the image, you will see white galaxies that were formed roughly around the time that the Earth and Sun were also being formed. Some galaxies look stretched and pulled because they've been distorted by gravity from black holes or supermassive galaxies with black holes at their center, as Einstein famously predicted.

2. The Southern Ring Nebula

Southern Ring NebulaTwo cameras aboard Webb captured the latest image of this planetary nebula, cataloged as NGC 3132, and known informally as the Southern Ring Nebula. It is approximately 2,500 light-years away. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)It might look like a jellyfish without any tentacles, but it's actually the Southern Ring Nebula, approximately 2,500 light years away from Earth, and officially dubbed NGC 3132. A planetary nebula is created when a dying star expels large amounts of mass over a period of successive waves; in these pictures, we can see those waves. There is also a "bubbly, almost foamy" orange material around the edges (blue in the mid-infrared version) that exists because molecular hydrogen expands and lights up the gas and dust.

The image is false-color, and depending on whether you're looking at it with near-infrared light versus mid-infrared light, the image has been colored to appear more blue or red respectively.

The hosts also noted an "eager egg," a narrow filament near the top of the nebula that is radially aligned and appears to be blue in the near-infrared image. One astronomer had initially insisted it was nothing remarkable; others speculated that it could be an edge-on galaxy, or a disk galaxy that appears at high angles to the line of sight. The doubting astronomer lost the bet; it was, indeed, an edge-on galaxy.

3. Stephan's quintet

Stephan's QuintetIn an enormous new image, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope reveals never-before-seen details of galaxy group "Stephan's Quintet" (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)This awe-inspiring feature is 290 million light years away from Earth. Situation in the constellation Pegasus — named after the winged horse from Greek mythology — it stunned astronomers when it was first discovered in 1877: They had never seen such a compact group of galaxies. Locked in a sort of cosmic dance, two of the galaxies are currently in the process of merging within each other. This new image is considered to be especially significant because it shows the type of interaction that drives the evolution of galaxies and can be the mechanisms for galaxies' growth. It provides scientists with new insights into how galactic interactions lead to star formation, as well as reveals more detail about a black hole in that region.

"The image also shows outflows driven by a black hole in Stephan's Quintet in a level of detail never seen before," NASA officials said. 

4. Carina Nebula

Carina NebulaThis landscape of "mountains" and "valleys" speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA's new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)It almost looks like a rough horsehair blanket, deep red and beige, with a classic and sharp blue night sky peeking up from behind it. One could imagine a camper in a sleeping bag gazing up at the stars while snuggled in warmly and receiving a view along these lines.

Except this is no ordinary view. Only 7,500 light years away from Earth, and located in our own Milky Way galaxy, the Carina Nebula has beguiled scientists for generations. This new image reveals, with unprecedented clarity, individual stars and emerging stellar nurseries that had not previously been seen. 

"These observations of NGC 3324 will shed light on the process of star formation. Star birth propagates over time, triggered by the expansion of the eroding cavity," NASA writes. "As the bright, ionized rim moves into the nebula, it slowly pushes into the gas and dust. If the rim encounters any unstable material, the increased pressure will trigger the material to collapse and form new stars."

5. WASP-96 b (spectrum)

WASP 96 bNASA's James Webb Space Telescope has captured the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star. The observation, which reveals the presence of specific gas molecules based on tiny decreases in the brightness of precise colors of light, is the most detailed of its kind to date, demonstrating Webb's unprecedented ability to analyze atmospheres hundreds of light-years away. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)Picture a gas giant with less than half the mass of Jupiter, but is also 1.2 times greater in diameter. You'd have WASP-96 b, which NASA describes as "a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star." Discovered in 2014, the unusual planet was noted for such quirky traits as orbiting its own star every 3.4 days, giving it a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Using sophisticated scientific instruments, the telescope actually took measurements of the atmosphere by analyzing the spectrums of light that passed through it.

"Researchers will be able to use the spectrum to measure the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, constrain the abundance of various elements like carbon and oxygen, and estimate the temperature of the atmosphere with depth," NASA writes. "They can then use this information to make inferences about the overall make-up of the planet, as well as how, when, and where it formed."

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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