NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) floored astronomers and spectators across the globe with its first full-color images on Tuesday.
Even the scientists who worked on the project were taken aback by the images, telling reporters in a Tuesday briefing that they sobbed, fell speechless, or dropped their jaws so far that they “nearly broke.”
The new space snapshots reveal countless stars, galaxies, and fine details nobody has ever seen before. They paint the birth and death of stars in sharp, new colors and peer further into the distance than any infrared telescope has ever looked.
Until now, images like these only came from the Hubble Space Telescope, which rocketed into Earth’s orbit in 1990. But the new JWST pictures reveal the rewards of 25 years and $10 billion NASA spent on its new observatory — all in a new, wide-ranging spectrum of infrared light.
The first image, a long-exposure of a tiny portion of the sky released on Monday (above), offered a peek at the promise of JWST. On Tuesday, a succession of new pictures revealed just how much sharper and stronger the new space observatory is. These images are only warm-ups for the years of science ahead.
“We’re making discoveries, and we really haven’t even started trying yet,” Eric Smith, chief scientist of NASA’s astrophysics division, said in the briefing.
JWST clearly shows two stars at the center of this nebula, where Hubble only saw one
The Southern Ring Nebula is a dying star that has imploded and is slowly expelling the layers of its atmosphere in successive waves, creating ever-expanding bubbles of colorful gas. Scientists knew there were two stars at its center, but couldn’t see them in images.
The new JWST picture shows the dying star, which glows red because it’s surrounded by dust, right next to its white companion star.
This image, captured in near-infrared wavelengths of light, shows the structure of the nebula. The blue bubble at the center is hot, ionized gas that’s superheated by the leftover core of the star. In the foamy orange outer regions, made of newly formed hydrogen, rays of the starlight beam through holes in the inner bubble.
A cluster of five galaxies is much sharper through JWST’s lens
Four of the galaxies in this image are about 300,000 light-years away, locked in a cosmic dance as each galaxy’s gravity influences the other.
In the JWST image, you can see galaxies in the background that were invisible to Hubble
The new telescope is 100 times stronger than Hubble, capturing far more galaxies than its predecessor ever could.
The new image also reveals the stellar nurseries created as galaxies merge
“We now see gas and dust, which is being heated up in the collision between those galaxies,” Mark McCaughrean, senior advisor for science and exploration at the European Space Agency, which is collaborating with NASA on the telescope, said in a livestream revealing the images.
As gas and dust get compressed and heated, they collapse into new stars. That means the cloud between galaxies in the JWST image is a nursery for the birth of new stars.
“We’re actually seeing the process of creation of new stars in this region,” McCaughrean said.
This is Hubble’s image of a star nursery in the Carina Nebula…
And this is JWST’s image of the same region
“When I see an image like this, I can’t help but think about scale,” Amber Straughn, a NASA astrophysicist on the JWST team, said in the livestream. “Every dot of light we see here is an individual star, not unlike our sun, and many of these likely also have planets. And it just reminds me that our sun and our planet, and ultimately us, were formed out of the same kind of stuff that we see here.”
The JWST image reveals hundreds of stars that weren’t visible before
“This is going to be revolutionary,” Jane Rigby, a NASA scientist overseeing JWST operations, said in the briefing on Tuesday, adding, “These are incredible capabilities that we’ve never had before.”