Jul 12, 2022 - Science

First James Webb Space Telescope photos show the universe in a new light

Three of the first photos taken by the JWST
Photos: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The first batch of James Webb Space Telescope photos released by NASA usher in a new era of discovery as the powerful new tool comes fully online.

Why it matters: The $10 billion observatory is tasked with revealing the processes that govern our universe, from how stars form to how the earliest galaxies evolved.

What's happening: The photos, released Monday and Tuesday, show off star formation within the Carina Nebula, a giant planet's atmosphere, a cluster of galaxies, one of the deepest photos of the universe ever taken and a planetary nebula.

The Carina nebula. Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
The Carina nebula. Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
  • The deep field photo — revealed on Monday by President Biden — contains galaxies as they looked more than 13 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang.
  • The JWST's image of the giant, extremely hot exoplanet WASP-96 b revealed water vapor in its atmosphere.
  • And the telescope's photo of the planetary nebula — called the Southern Ring Nebula — shows off the dying star at its center as never before.

How it works: The JWST looks out on the universe in infrared light, allowing it to cut through dust that obscures photos taken in optical wavelengths.

  • This allows the telescope to see galaxies that are farther away — and further back in time — in order to piece together how the earliest galaxies formed after the Big Bang.
  • The telescope's huge mirror and instruments also allow scientists to gather data about the compositions of alien planets' atmosphere and how stars form.
The components of an exoplanet's atmosphere
Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Between the lines: This mission hasn't been without its controversies here on Earth.

  • While today the telescope is in space and appears to be functioning perfectly, its development cost billions of dollars more than expected and took decades longer than anticipated to build.
  • Astronomers are also calling on NASA to re-name the observatory, saying that former NASA Administrator James Webb had a hand in ousting LGBTQ+ employees from their federal jobs in the 1950s and 1960s.

The bottom line: These photos are just the beginning for JWST, which scientists expect will re-frame how they understand the history of the universe.

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