Stunning JWST Images Show New Details Of The Universe
Scroll down to compare the new JWST images to the ones Hubble took of the same subjects!
After many delays, a Christmas launch, and a months-long period of travel and testing, the first science images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) were unveiled this week. The JWST has a huge multi-segmented mirror that allows it to gather faint light—and it sees in the infrared, allowing it to see through dust and gas and reveal details about the universe that were previously unseeable.
On Monday, a short ceremony at the White House unveiled the first image, a “deep field” image taken by staring for hours at a piece of sky the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. The image shows thousands of galaxies, including ones so distant that their images have been warped by the gravitational lensing effect of massive objects in between. On Tuesday, four more images were unveiled, including a spectrograph describing the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet, a cluster of galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet, the dying stars of the Southern Ring Nebula, and the star formation region known as the Carina Nebula.
Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist and deputy project scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications joins Ira to talk about the images, and what lies ahead now that the JWST has entered its operational phase.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Amber Straughn is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Deputy Project Scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, what you need to know about monkeypox. But first, the must see space story this week, I’m talking about the deep space images from the James Webb Space Telescope, JWST. As I say, this week, the first images from the telescope, sitting a million miles out in space, were unveiled, and they were spectacular.
Joining me now to review the slideshow is Amber Straughn, astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. She serves as the deputy project scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications. Welcome back to Science Friday. Good to have you.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Thank you. It’s great to be here. What a week.
IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet. Have you come down yet?
AMBER STRAUGHN: [LAUGHS] Not really. I still feel like I’m floating on clouds a little bit or maybe on a nebula.
IRA FLATOW: [CHUCKLES] Well, let’s float just a bit more. Would you do that for us? We’re seeing planets of our solar system now coming out from NASA. What’s so unique about them? And why should we be interested in them?
AMBER STRAUGHN: Right, well, this sort of shows a really interesting thing about the telescope, because Tuesday, we got the first five images. And here we are, just a few days later, and we can see there’s already more new images out. And so some of these first views of Jupiter are just incredible. I actually saw these several weeks ago when they first got taken, and I was floored. I mean, it just proves that we can do almost everything with this telescope in terms of distance. We can see objects within our solar system, all the way out to the most distant regions of space.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the first pictures. We’ve all seen them by now. We have them up on our website at sciencefriday.com/jwst. I know you study how stars and black holes form in distant galaxies and how these processes change over time. So give me an idea of what the images you see from JWST can tell you about the formation of the stars and black holes in the universe.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Yeah, so this is just a first look, so I haven’t had a chance to actually dig into the data yet. But you can see, just by looking at these images, hints of what is going to come. For example, in the cluster image, the deep field, of course, everyone there is focusing on the little red dots scattered across that image, which are some of the very, very distant galaxies, which is one of the primary things JWST was designed to find. And this image proves we can do that.
But what my eyes are immediately drawn to is all of the galaxies that we see that are not quite as far away, but that are these stunning details, these really interesting morphologies, the shapes of the galaxies. And what we see is that we’re going to be able to study these types of galaxies at a further distance in ways that we haven’t been able to before. This is going to help us piece together how galaxies change over time and, ultimately, how the universe sort of evolves over time.
IRA FLATOW: Go into that a bit more. Give me a scientist’s eye view of exactly the kinds of things you could learn and what you would be looking for.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Sure, so part of what I study is, I’m interested in galaxy mergers when galaxies collide and how that process of galaxy interaction sort of impacts the overall evolution of galaxies over time. If you think about how we’ve been able to do this with Hubble images, we’ve been able to look at morphologies of galaxies out to– not too far into the past. And of course, with infrared light, the same story is with the very distant galaxies. We’re going to be able to do this at even earlier times in the universe.
And so, for example, what I am looking forward to doing with this data is going in and finding all of those weird-looking galaxies, the ones that aren’t the typical spirals or ellipticals, the ones that have strange shapes that show us that they’re undergoing interactions and to be able to study those in detail to see how they’re forming stars, to see which ones have signatures of black hole growth. So those are the types of things that I’m really interested in.
IRA FLATOW: And it’s interesting that you bring up the weird galaxies because I’m looking at one of the images, the Stephan’s Quintet, the five galaxies that are arranged together. They look to be more like a family of jellyfish to me.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Right, I’ve heard several people describe it as looking like jellyfish, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: So what is different about those? Like you say, they don’t look like your normal central casting spiral galaxies.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Right, right, that particular image, Stephan’s Quintet, is a great example of a closer version of this activity of galaxies merging. So what we see here, the four galaxies on the right side of the image are the compact group of galaxies that are undergoing interactions. The one on the left is a little bit in the foreground.
But it’s those four on the right that are actually acting actively engaged in a merger scenario. And you can see that, right? You can see the sort of wispy structures in between the two. So that’s a great sort of closer example of the things I study in terms of what happens when galaxies merge. And you can see it. You can see what’s happening here up close. It’s really, really incredible.
IRA FLATOW: And why does looking in the infrared portion, which our eyes normally can’t see, why does that show you more than we would see, for example, with the Hubble?
AMBER STRAUGHN: So there’s a few key things that infrared light gives us. The first, and what’s really key to my area of research, is really just distance. So I’m interested in star formation. And we see that primarily in ultraviolet light and a little bit of optical light. And at high distances, that light is shifted into the infrared.
And so it’s sort of the same principle as why we need infrared light to see the very first galaxies that were born over 13 and 1/2 billion years ago, is that the cosmic expansion of space has caused that light to be shifted, redshifted all the way into the infrared part of the spectrum.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, I didn’t realize that. So you’re able to see further back in time.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Well, we haven’t had time to really, really do detailed analysis on this deep field image yet. And so we don’t know if we’ve sort of broken the cosmic distance record. But what we do know– and one of the things that really took my breath away when I first saw this data– is we have a spectrum. We have a galactic fingerprint of a galaxy whose light has been traveling for 13.1 billion years.
So we have this pristine, beautiful spectrum that tells us, for the first time ever, what chemicals are in these extremely distant galaxies. And I think that this is the type of thing, this is the type of science that is really going to revolutionize our understanding of how galaxies really got their start.
IRA FLATOW: That’s really cool, all that star stuff that we’ve been talking about for decades. I mentioned before that Stephan’s Quintet is one of my favorites, and we were talking about that.
But I found myself in awe of the Karina nebula, an image that was not unlike we’ve seen coming from Hubble, but I mean an image that drove home the point, once again, just about how many stars and galaxy and dust and gas there is out there. I mean, in this image, you’re looking at something that looks, as the caption says, looks like the cliff of a mountain range. Weren’t you the one at the news conference who blurted out, we don’t even know what’s going on over in here?
AMBER STRAUGHN: [LAUGHS] Yeah, that was me on the NASA broadcast. Yeah, it’s just– this image is stunning. This is the one that made me cry when I first saw it, to be honest. I mean, it’s just so beautiful, like on a human level. But then, yeah, digging into the science to what’s going on in this beautiful image, yeah, there’s just– there’s so much.
IRA FLATOW: Describe what’s going on there. What are we actually– what is that brown stuff there, that wall made out of?
AMBER STRAUGHN: The orangey brownish stuff that you see, that is gas and dust. And then up above the region of gas and dust, up above that ridge, are these gigantic, hot, young stars that have these massive stellar winds. Radiation is coming off of these stars. And it’s sort of pushing down in on this region of gas and dust. And you sort of get that sense, right? This image has so much texture and depth.
And you can see, almost, how it’s sort pushing down. And of course, all that stuff, the gas and dust, that’s the raw material for new stars and baby planets. And that’s exactly what’s happening here, is that we think that the radiation from those hot young stars up above the ridge is causing new stars to form in this region of gas and dust.
And this gas and dust is the same kind of stuff that we know that our own solar system formed out of, that our Earth ultimately formed out of, and of course, us. It goes back to the classic Carl Sagan concept, that we really are made of the same stuff that makes up the stars.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so people wonder where did all the stuff on Earth come from. And now we can see where it came from.
AMBER STRAUGHN: We can see. This is a beautiful, beautiful example of the stuff that we’re made of that’s–
IRA FLATOW: The starry stuff.
AMBER STRAUGHN: –literally in our bones, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: There were a bunch of pretty pictures. We’re looking at them. But there was one image that probably, to the average person, didn’t look all that exciting, but was probably a very big deal to certain kinds of astronomers. And I’m talking about the image of a graph. Tell us about that one.
AMBER STRAUGHN: The spectrum, yes. This spectrum, this fingerprint from the atmosphere of an exoplanet. This is absolutely incredible. So of course, what we’re seeing in this graph is the light that’s coming from the atmosphere of a planet that is orbiting another star. And so these exoplanets, we now know that they’re everywhere. That’s something we didn’t know when I was a kid. We didn’t even know there were exoplanets. But we now know that exoplanets are everywhere.
And this telescope, I think, is poised to do some incredible, groundbreaking science in exoplanets because we have never seen spectra in these wavelengths before. So if you look at that particular spectrum that was released this week, we’ve been able to go out sort of about halfway in that spectrum with Hubble to see a little bit of what’s going on in these atmospheres, but this telescope is going to allow us to do it in brand new ways at brand new wavelengths.
And one of the key things we see in this spectrum is the signature of water vapor. And the details of this spectrum reveal new things about this particular planet. And so it’s just– it’s awesome. Yes, spectra aren’t as pretty as the images, but the interesting thing– and this is really key– is that in the first year of observations, about 70% of the time is dedicated to spectroscopy.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
AMBER STRAUGHN: And so it’s just so important to– because this is where the physics is. This is where the astrophysics is. We get to learn what objects in the universe are made of.
IRA FLATOW: Well, Dr. Straughn, I want to thank you for taking the time to be with us today. I know you’ve had a very active week. I’ll let you go decompress now.
AMBER STRAUGHN: Thanks. This has been fun. What a week.
IRA FLATOW: Amber Straughn, deputy project scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications and an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Congratulations. We’re looking forward to what you can find in the coming years. And once again, you can see the pictures we’ve been talking about at sciencefriday.com/jwst.