The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope continue to captivate the world. These six unexpected things are hiding in the recordings.
Frankfurt – The space organizations involved in the project, Nasa, Esa and CSA, have published five images taken by the “James Webb” space telescope of the depths of the universe. The pictures have it all – on several levels. First of all, they should have brought relief to many viewers who know the fate of the “Webb” predecessor “Hubble”: The “Hubble” space telescope delivered useless images after its launch in 1990 – a defect in the primary mirror made an expensive one Repair mission needed. But everything went smoothly with “Webb” – very lucky, because the telescope is 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.
Then there is the content of the first five scientific images that astound even researchers. It was expected that the new $10 billion space telescope would deliver sharper images than Hubble and look deeper into space. But the quality of the recordings is breathtaking. “We can’t take pictures of empty skies,” said NASA scientist Jane Rigby when presenting the images. “Everywhere we look are galaxies.”
In fact, the first scientific images from the James Webb telescope contained several surprises that left even the researchers who were able to preview the images speechless. An overview.
Surprise #1: James Webb telescope finds galaxies everywhere
A motif published by the “Webb” team shows the Southern Ring Nebula (NGC 3132). Two images of this planetary nebula in the constellation Lyra have been released. One of the images was created using data from the “Webb” instrument Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). The picture shows not only the planetary nebula in great detail, but also the large distances of the universe behind it. The red area of the nebula and all areas outside it are filled with distant galaxies. A galaxy on the left edge of the image (marked red in the image) deserves special attention: researchers thought it was starlight or part of the planetary nebula. In fact, “Webb” is looking at the edge of a galaxy here.
Surprise number 2: James Webb telescope discovers second star in the southern ring nebula
The second image of the Southern Ring Nebula uses data from the “Webb” instrument Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). With it, “James Webb” can look directly into the heart of the planetary nebula – and reveal a surprise there: A second star in the center (the left, reddish star). So far, researchers have assumed that there is only one star in the center that is dying and releasing its material in batches – which gave rise to the southern ring nebula. Webb’s MIRI instrument enabled the researchers to detect objects shrouded in dust like the red star.
Surprise number 3: black hole in a galaxy
An image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows Stephan’s Quintet, a group of galaxies that the new telescope imaged together. According to NASA, the image is the largest mosaic ever created from “Webb” data: It consists of more than 150 million pixels and was assembled from almost 1000 individual image files. The image is beautiful and detailed – and upon closer inspection it reveals a secret of the uppermost galaxy (NGC 7319): At its center there is a supermassive black hole that has about 240 solar masses. This mass monster is seen in the image with averted vision, emanating tremendous amounts of light as it engulfs dust, gas, and other material within the galaxy. Its light is so bright that it outshines the other features of the galaxy.
Surprise number 4: “Webb” photographs the oldest galaxies
The first scientific image released by the James Webb Space Telescope packs a punch. It is a so-called “deep field” in which the telescope looked at a tiny part of the sky for 12.5 hours. The image shows hundreds or even thousands of galaxies – and a phenomenon predicted by Albert Einstein: gravitational lensing. Objects behind a massive object are magnified by its gravity. This so-called microlensing effect is often used in astronomy to look deeper into the universe and “Webb” also uses the effect.
Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 in the foreground magnifies objects that are much more distant. On the picture they look slightly bent or curved. Researchers cannot yet say how old the oldest galaxies in the image are, as the image has not yet been evaluated in detail. However, one thing is already certain: galaxies can be seen on the image, which are 13.1 and 13.0 billion years old.
Surprise number 5: What did “James Webb” see in the Carina Nebula?
Even astronomers are amazed by the images from the James Webb space telescope. “What’s actually going on here?” NASA scientist Amber Straughn asked when she unveiled the “Webb” image of the Carina Nebula. As she did so, she pointed to a strange tubular structure in the nebula (marked in red in the image). A NASA description of the image says: “The glowing ultraviolet radiation from the young stars shapes the nebula’s wall by slowly eroding it. Dramatic pillars rise above the glowing wall of gas, resisting this radiation. The ‘steam’ that appears to be rising from the ‘mountains’ is actually hot, ionized gas and hot dust pouring out of the nebula due to unrelenting radiation.”
Surprise number 6: Signs of water in an exoplanet’s atmosphere
One of the images from the James Webb Space Telescope is actually not an “image” but the spectrum of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. The telescope has observed how the exoplanet Wasp-69 b passes in front of its star (a so-called transit) and examined its atmosphere. The result was amazing: The roughly Jupiter-sized exoplanet, which orbits its star once within 3.4 days and is correspondingly hot, harbors water. The spectrum shows the presence of water molecules in the atmosphere. The researchers can also read an unexpected weather phenomenon from the curve: clouds.
James Webb Space Telescope: The research is just beginning
If you consider the level of detail and sharpness of the images from the “James Webb” telescope, one thing is already certain: the researchers involved will find numerous surprises in the images. In addition, the new telescope is now going into scientific operation – numerous other images and data will be published in the future. A new era has begun for astronomy and James Webb will revolutionize research for years to come. (tab)
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