Look up: The James Webb Space Telescope uncloaks a dazzling and dynamic cosmos

Look up: The James Webb Space Telescope uncloaks a dazzling and dynamic cosmos
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope from Greenbelt, MD, USA (Wikimedia Commons).

Tuesday saw the release of the James Webb Space Telescope's premier set of images that were snapped over a period of five days, demonstrating the magnifying prowess of the most powerful telescope ever launched into space.

President Joe Biden on Monday unveiled the first picture snapped by Webb – a "deep field" of galaxies peppering a sand-grain-sized morsel of the cosmos located more than 13 billion lightyears from Earth.

The remaining pictures were shared on Tuesday by Webb team scientists, and they offer a tantalizing preview of what can be expected in the future from the $10 billion infrared instrument.


READ MORE: President Joe Biden introduces the James Webb Space Telescope's first glimpse into the early Universe

Tasting an exoplanet's air

Webb is so sensitive that it can read the spectra of elements in the atmospheres of distant planets around other stars. These observations can help determine the habitability of extrasolar worlds.

"On June 21, Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) measured light from the WASP-96 system for 6.4 hours as the planet moved across the star. The result is a light curve showing the overall dimming of starlight during the transit, and a transmission spectrum revealing the brightness change of individual wavelengths of infrared light between 0.6 and 2.8 microns," the National Aeronautics and Space Administration explained.

"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 said.

"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," the agency added. "The blue line on the graph is a best-fit model that takes into account the data, the known properties of WASP-96 b and its star (e.g., size, mass, temperature), and assumed characteristics of the atmosphere."


READ MORE: Hubble Space Telescope captures dazzling galactic 'dance' for its mission's 32nd anniversary week

Stellar mummies

Webb's next catch was the dazzling Southern Ring planetary nebula, a cloud of gas and dust 2,000 lightyears away left over from the death of its central star. Webb’s unprecedented acuity enabled it to see the binary companion of the white dwarf – the dense Earth-sized corpse of a Sun-like star – sitting in the center of the nebula.

"Two stars, which are locked in a tight orbit, shape the local landscape," NASA wrote. "Webb's infrared images feature new details in this complex system. The stars – and their layers of light – are prominent in the image from Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the left, while the image from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the right shows for the first time that the second star is surrounded by dust. The brighter star is in an earlier stage of its stellar evolution and will probably eject its own planetary nebula in the future."


An intergalactic tango and an invisible gas-guzzling singularity

Webb also snapped a picture of Stephan's Quintet – five galaxies locked in a gravitational embrace hundreds of millions of lightyears away.

The galaxy hovering above its companions contains a supermassive black hole feeding on a hot swirling disc of matter.

"Tight groups like this may have been more common in the early universe when their superheated, infalling material may have fueled very energetic black holes called quasars. Even today, the topmost galaxy in the group – NGC 7319 – harbors an active galactic nucleus, a supermassive black hole 24 million times the mass of the Sun. It is actively pulling in material and puts out light energy equivalent to 40 billion Suns," NASA said.


A precipice to infinity

Webb's other revelation came in a breathtaking starscape of the Carina Nebula, where thousands of stars and planetary systems are forming.

"Called the Cosmic Cliffs, Webb’s seemingly three-dimensional picture looks like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening. In reality, it is the edge of the giant, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, and the tallest 'peaks' in this image are about 7 light-years high," NASA explained. "The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars located in the center of the bubble, above the area shown in this image."


READ MORE: An astronomer on the team sending a giant new telescope to space explains what they hope to discover

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