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A Deeper Look Into The Cosmos: First Images from The James Webb Space Telescope

On December 25th, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope – a large, infrared telescope – was launched into space from the European Space Agency (ESA) facility in French Guiana. Its purpose: to act as “the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide”.

Five days ago, on July 12th, 2022, the first set of images of the decades-long project was revealed to the public.

They were magnificent.

Thousands of individuals from around the world collaborated on this venture, dedicating decades of time, hard work, testing, research, and curiosity to the project.

The telescope was assembled with several “innovative technologies” designed and developed specifically for the JWST. The Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) – which observe light between 0.6 and 5 microns in length and 5 to 28 microns in length, respectively – are but a couple of features sported by the telescope.

Like most who saw the images generated by the JWST, I was in absolute awe. The resolution of and information within each image are incredible. Details never before seen were revealed and the possibilities of what could be learned from data collected by the JWST started to become just as clear.

Every image is quite wondrous. However, I'm particularly drawn to three of them. The view of stellar death seen in the images of NGC 3132 or the “Southern Ring Nebula” is incredible. The shell-like clouds of dust surrounding the binary star system – both in different stages of their respective life cycles – breath life into the image, and help one better appreciate just how dynamic stars can be.

The next image is Webb’s First Deep Field, an absolutely amazing image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. Two things in particular impressed me about this image. The first thing is understanding how far the light from particular galaxies had to travel to reach the detectors of the JWST. Scientists estimate the light from one of the oldest galaxies in the image to be approximately 13.1 billion years old, fewer than 800 million years removed from the Big Bang. To visualize a light source from so far into the past is absolutely incredible.

The second thing that amazes me is the scale of what this image represents, with regards to viewing the Universe. This particular image covers a part of the sky equivalent to the area covered by a grain of sand held at arm’s length towards the sky.

This image – loaded with galaxies near and far, young and old (all relatively speaking) – represents such a small slice of what there is to visualize that it bends the mind. The scales of astronomical bodies, ages and distances will never fail to humble, yet inspire the curious.

The final image – and what I suspect is the frontrunner for the "Screensaver/Wallpaper of the Year" award – is my personal favorite. The clarity and scale of the image – a marked improvement from that of the Hubble – reveal more details of the stellar nursery that is NGC 3324, a star-forming region in the Carina Nebula. Aside from the detail of the image, once again, the scale of this stellar nursery is what amazes me. The peaks in this image are approximately seven light years or 41 TRILLION miles tall. Images like this have always been awe-inspiring, but learning the scale of structures like this never fail to place things in perspective.

Per NASA, the JWST will “study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System”.

The people at NASA, the CSA, and the ESA are doing humanity a great service, inspiring us to look up and wonder.




Image/Data Credits: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency (ASC-CSA), Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)


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