A new era in astronomical observation has begun with the release of the first images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. During a large media event*, NASA displayed the first 5 images taken from the fully operational James Webb Space Telescope. One of the images was released the night before as a “teaser” – this image was also announced by President Biden during a press conference.
*That was not without its share of technical difficulties – the stream was completely hammered by literally the entire planet!
Webb’s First Deep Field: SMACS 0723
This is the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. This enormous cluster of galaxies is so large that gravitational lensing bends the light of more distant galaxies around the cluster, and often stretches that light into bizarre shapes. If that’s not astounding enough, this image only took only 12.5 hours to collect, whereas the Hubble Deep Field from 2012 took six weeks!
“Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, is best known for being prominently featured in the holiday classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Today, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan’s Quintet in a new light. This enormous mosaic is Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. The information from Webb provides new insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe.
With its powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, Webb shows never-before-seen details in this galaxy group. Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image. Sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars are being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions. Most dramatically, Webb captures huge shock waves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, smashes through the cluster.” – NASA
Southern Ring Nebula
“This scene was created by a white dwarf star – the remains of a star like our Sun after it shed its outer layers and stopped burning fuel though nuclear fusion. Those outer layers now form the ejected shells all along this view. In the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image, the white dwarf appears to the lower left of the bright, central star, partially hidden by a diffraction spike. The same star appears – but brighter, larger, and redder – in the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) image. This white dwarf star is cloaked in thick layers of dust, which make it appear larger.
The brighter star in both images hasn’t yet shed its layers. It closely orbits the dimmer white dwarf, helping to distribute what it’s ejected. Over thousands of years and before it became a white dwarf, the star periodically ejected mass – the visible shells of material. As if on repeat, it contracted, heated up – and then, unable to push out more material, pulsated. Stellar material was sent in all directions – like a rotating sprinkler – and provided the ingredients for this asymmetrical landscape.
Today, the white dwarf is heating up the gas in the inner regions – which appear blue at left and red at right. Both stars are lighting up the outer regions, shown in orange and blue, respectively. The images look very different because NIRCam and MIRI collect different wavelengths of light. NIRCam observes near-infrared light, which is closer to the visible wavelengths our eyes detect. MIRI goes farther into the infrared, picking up mid-infrared wavelengths. The second star more clearly appears in the MIRI image, because this instrument can see the gleaming dust around it, bringing it more clearly into view.” – NASA
Atmosphere Composition of Exoplanet WASP-96b
“NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star.
The observation, which reveals the presence of specific gas molecules based on tiny decreases in the brightness of precise colors of light, is the most detailed of its kind to date, demonstrating Webb’s unprecedented ability to analyze atmospheres hundreds of light-years away.
While the Hubble Space Telescope has analyzed numerous exoplanet atmospheres over the past two decades, capturing the first clear detection of water in 2013, Webb’s immediate and more detailed observation marks a giant leap forward in the quest to characterize potentially habitable planets beyond Earth.” – NASA
Artist’s depiction of exoplanet WASP-96 b
“Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula
“What looks much like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth.
Called the Cosmic Cliffs, the region is actually the edge of a gigantic, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, roughly 7,600 light-years away. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars located in the center of the bubble, above the area shown in this image. The high-energy radiation from these stars is sculpting the nebula’s wall by slowly eroding it away.
NIRCam – with its crisp resolution and unparalleled sensitivity – unveils hundreds of previously hidden stars, and even numerous background galaxies.” – NASA
JWST team members with a connection to the Vatican Observatory
Two of the investigators on the JWST team are a married couple, and they were both instructors at the 1993 Vatican Observatory Summer School!
George Rieke is ‘Regents’ Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and serves as the science team lead for the James Webb Space Telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI).
Marcia J. Rieke is a Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, and is the principal investigator for the near-infrared camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope.
Many of our [VOSS] graduates are still friends and colleagues in a broad variety of astronomy. Two who are prominent in plans to use the Webb Telescope are Almudena Alonso-Herrero and Roberto Maiolino – the school started lifelong collaborations with both of them that will reach a high point with Webb data!
Almudena Alonso Herrero is a senior staff scientist at Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicasin Madrid, Spain. She is Spanish co-I of the European Consortium of MIRI: the mid-infrared instrument for JWST
Roberto Maiolino is Professor of Experimental Astrophysics at the Department of Physics (Cavendish Laboratory) and at the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge. He is part of the Instrument Science Team of NIRSpec, the primary spectrometer of JWST. He is coordinator of the Multi-Object Survey programme (JADES and WIDE) and co-lead of the Integral Field Spectroscopy programme.
Br. Guy’s statement to the Catholic News Service:
“The latest space images from the James Webb telescope are a tantalizing glimpse of what we’ll be able to learn about the universe with this telescope in the future. Among the materials released yesterday are detailed spectra of galaxies, including so-called “Einstein rings” formed by the warping of space as predicted in Einstein’s theory of relativity, and direct evidence of water vapor in the clouds of a planet orbiting a distant star.
But along with such data, exciting as they are to the astronomers, other images displayed sheer beauty that anyone could appreciate. They include an image of a quintet of orbiting galaxies, and a colorful region of gas and dust in our own galaxy where stars are being born — and dying. Such reflections of beauty are a necessary food for the human spirit and a reminder that we do not live by bread alone.
For the astronomers at the Specola Vaticana, there’s also a personal side to the success of the web telescope. Astronomy is a small field, we astronomers all tend to know one another. Many of the scientists who built the instruments and planned the observations are personal friends of ours. We know how long and how hard they and their colleagues have worked to make this incredible machine work.
The Specola Vaticana has a long association with the University of Arizona’s astronomy department; we share offices, and telescopes, with the University’s Steward Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. And as it happens, the primary camera on the Webb telescope, NIRCam, was developed at the University of Arizona by a team led by Dr. Marcia Rieke. What’s more, another Webb camera, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) was developed there by a team run by her husband, George Rieke. Both George and Marsha Reike served as instructors at the Vatican Observatory Summer School held in Castel Gandolfo in 1993.
“Many of our graduates [of that summer school] are still friends and colleagues in a broad variety of astronomy,” George noted. “Two who are prominent in plans to use the Webb Telescope are Almudena Alonso-Herrero and Roberto Maiolino. The school started lifelong collaborations with both of them that will reach a high point with Webb data.”
Meanwhile, the exoplanet spectra from Webb also harkens back to work done by a Jesuit astronomer more than 150 years ago.
The Webb data compared the spectrum of a star and planet system from when the planet was orbiting behind the star, and in front of the star. By removing the signal from the star’s own light, one can examine the light coming just from the planet. These data show unmistakable evidence of high water vapor… the clearest evidence yet of an exoplanet’s composition.
But in the 1860’s, Father Angelo Secchi SJ of the Roman College attached a prism to the lens of his telescope, situated on the roof of the St. Ignatius Church in Rome, and made the first spectral measurements of the atmospheres of the planets in our own solar system. Among Secchi’s results were the first indication of carbon compounds in the atmosphere of Jupiter and Uranus. One can only imagine how delighted Secchi would be to see the science he pioneered is now applied to planets unknown to him orbiting distant stars.
The accomplishments of the Webb telescope hold a larger message as well. First of all, it is a tribute to the power of the human spirit and what we can do when we work together. The telescope was an immensely complicated undertaking, from the mechanical structure of the mirror and cameras to its launching and delivering into its parking orbit in space. But in fact, perhaps the greatest complexity was coordinating a large international team of engineers and researchers on a project that ran well over budget and endured ten years of delays before the telescope finally delivered its first data.
But more deeply that that, the science enabled by this telescope is our attempt to use our God-given intelligence to understand the logic of the universe. The universe wouldn’t work if it weren’t logical. But as the Webb images show, the universe is not only logical, it is also beautiful. This is God’s creation being revealed to us, and in it we can see both His astonishing power and his love of beauty.”
And at the same time we are amazed by the universe it shows us, we can also be grateful that God has given us humans, His creation, the ability to see and understand what He has done in the creation of that universe. As the psalmist writes, ”When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.”
Recording of NASA’s JWST first images worldwide reveal:
JWST Commissioning Data Highlights
The JWST team has provided several datasets that astronomers may find useful. These data were collected during JWST’s six month commissioning phase, and “provide examples of observation modes to help astronomers become familiar with data formats, the pipeline, and known artifacts, as well as to test their analysis methods.” There may actually be some scientific value in this data. The website linked-to below highlights some of the datasets that the JWST mission team has identified as “potentially useful to astronomers.”