© 2022 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

NASA's James Webb telescope captures groundbreaking images of distant galaxies

The bright star at the center of NGC 3132, Southern Nebula Ring, while prominent when viewed by NASA's Webb Telescope in near-infrared light, plays a supporting role in sculpting the surrounding nebula. A second star, barely visible at lower left along one of the bright star's diffraction spikes, is the nebula's source. It has ejected at least eight layers of gas and dust over thousands of years.
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
The bright star at the center of NGC 3132, Southern Nebula Ring, while prominent when viewed by NASA's Webb Telescope in near-infrared light, plays a supporting role in sculpting the surrounding nebula. A second star, barely visible at lower left along one of the bright star's diffraction spikes, is the nebula's source. It has ejected at least eight layers of gas and dust over thousands of years.

Updated July 12, 2022 at 11:35 AM ET

The universe's splendor and breadth are on display like never before, thanks to a new batch of images that NASA released from the James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday.

The images reflect five areas of space that researchers agreed to target: the exoplanet WASP-96 b; the Southern Ring Nebula; the Carina Nebula; Stephan's Quintet (five galaxies in the constellation Pegasus); and the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.

Catch a dying star

Webb pulled the veil back on the second star in the Southern Ring Nebula, using mid-infrared wavelengths to capture it in extraordinary detail.

"The star closely orbits its companion as it periodically ejects layers of gas and dust," NASA said. "Together, the swirling duo have created a fantastic landscape of asymmetrical shells."

Southern Ring Nebula (NIRCam and MIRI Images Side by Side)
Space Telescope Science Institut/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and The E
/
NASA
This side-by-side comparison shows observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light, at left, and mid-infrared light, at right, from NASA’s Webb Telescope. This scene was created by a white dwarf star – the remains of a star like our Sun after it shed its outer layers and stopped burning fuel though nuclear fusion. Those outer layers now form the ejected shells all along this view. In the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image, the white dwarf appears to the lower left of the bright, central star, partially hidden by a diffraction spike. The same star appears – but brighter, larger, and redder – in the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) image. This white dwarf star is cloaked in thick layers of dust, which make it appear larger. The brighter star in both images hasn’t yet shed its layers. It closely orbits the dimmer white dwarf, helping to distribute what it’s ejected. Over thousands of years and before it became a white dwarf, the star periodically ejected mass – the visible shells of material. As if on repeat, it contracted, heated up – and then, unable to push out more material, pulsated. Stellar material was sent in all directions – like a rotating sprinkler – and provided the ingredients for this asymmetrical landscape. Today, the white dwarf is heating up the gas in the inner regions – which appear blue at left and red at right. Both stars are lighting up the outer regions, shown in orange and blue, respectively. The images look very different because NIRCam and MIRI collect different wavelengths of light. NIRCam observes near-infrared light, which is closer to the visible wavelengths our eyes detect. MIRI goes farther into the infrared, picking up mid-infrared wavelengths. The second star more clearly appears in the MIRI image, because this instrument can see the gleaming dust around it, bringing it more clearly into view. The stars – and their layers of light – steal more attention in the NIRCam image, while dust pl

main_image_galaxies_stephans_quintet_sq_nircam_miri_final-1280.jpg
NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, is best known for being prominently featured in the holiday classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Today, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan’s Quintet in a new light. This enormous mosaic is Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. The information from Webb provides new insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe. With its powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, Webb shows never-before-seen details in this galaxy group. Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image. Sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars are being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions. Most dramatically, Webb captures huge shock waves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, smashes through the cluster.
main_image_star-forming_region_carina_nircam_final-5mb.jpg
NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
This 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. 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. 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.


The new image shows the nebula from a nearly head-on view. But if we could see it from its edge, NASA says, "its three-dimensional shape would more clearly look like two bowls placed together at the bottom, opening away from one another with a large hole at the center."

Webb delivers a portrait of a puffy giant

"WASP-96 b is a giant planet outside our solar system, composed mainly of gas," NASA said. "The planet, located nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, orbits its star every 3.4 days. It has about half the mass of Jupiter, and its discovery was announced in 2014."

The agency didn't release a photo but rather a spectrum analysis of WASP-96 b's atmosphere, garnered from Webb sighting the WASP-96 b as it transited in front of a star.

A transmission spectrum made from a single observation using Webb's <a href="https://webbtelescope.org/contents/media/images/01FA0T0WM3X65FFXM0JBR4C5ZB" target="_self">Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph</a> (NIRISS) reveals atmospheric characteristics of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b.
/ Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
/
Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
A transmission spectrum made from a single observation using Webb's Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) reveals atmospheric characteristics of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b.
A light curve from Webb's Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) shows the change in brightness of light from the WASP-96 star system over time as the planet transits the star. A transit occurs when an orbiting planet moves between the star and the telescope, blocking some of the light from the star.
/ Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
/
Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
A light curve from Webb's Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) shows the change in brightness of light from the WASP-96 star system over time as the planet transits the star. A transit occurs when an orbiting planet moves between the star and the telescope, blocking some of the light from the star.

The analysis found the "chemical fingerprint" of water in the atmosphere, said Knicole Colon, a research astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

A look at some of the universe's first galaxies ever

The trove of images comes one day after a jaw-dropping first image was published by NASA and the White House, more than six months after the telescope was launched from Earth.

That first image showed the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, known as Webb's First Deep Field.

NASA'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 composite image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail. The image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago.
/ NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
/
NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
NASA'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 composite image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail. The image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago.

"If you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm's length, that is the part of the universe you are seeing — just one little speck of the universe," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on Monday.

But that speck contains multitudes. And thanks to the telescope's deep and sharp infrared images, Earthlings are getting a more detailed look at distant galaxies than was ever possible.

That first image comprises thousands of galaxies, with even faint and diffuse structures visible for the first time.

"This deep field, taken by Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours – achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope's deepest fields, which took weeks," NASA said.

The stunning displays amount to a rich lesson in the history of the universe: some of the galaxies are more than 13 billion years old, meaning they formed relatively soon after the Big Bang.

For instance, the image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 amounts to a snapshot from 4.6 billion years ago.

Aside from gaping at stunning views like everyone else, researchers will use data from the Webb telescope "to learn more about the galaxies' masses, ages, histories, and compositions," according to NASA.

The Webb Space Telescope is the culmination of an international program led by NASA. Its partners include the European Space Agency, or ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tags

Vanessa Leroy
Vanessa Leroy is a photo editing intern at NPR and a freelance photographer and photo editor, based in Boston, Massachusetts. She holds a BFA in Photography from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She remains on the hunt for new ways of seeing, remembering and altering the world through photography. She is drawn to image-making because of the power it holds to create nuanced representation for marginalized people and uplift their stories. She sees photography as a tool for social justice, and with it, she hopes to create worlds that people feel as though they can enter and draw from, as well as provide a look into an experience that they may not personally recognize.
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.