Top 10 James Webb Space Telescope discoveries to celebrate its first year in science
Uncovering the universe in unparalleled detail
Last year on this day, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA's next-generation cosmic explorer, unveiled the universe in a whole new light.
The $10 billion telescope, an engineering wonder that took more than two decades to design and build, revealed its first full-color science images of the universe on July 12, 2022 — marking the start of its scientific exploration of the distant universe.
Webb is uncovering a universe in unparalleled detail that scientists had never envisaged. Over a year, Webb has amassed a plethora of data about the universe, from detecting the most distant galaxies, gazing into dust clouds to see star formation, to unraveling the riddles of our solar system.
What we've seen thus far is only the tip of the iceberg; there are many more scientific mysteries waiting to be solved, cosmic objects to be discovered, and whatnot.
To commemorate its first historic anniversary, let's look at some of Webb's most intriguing findings and images.
First Deep Field image
Webb's first observation was the most detailed infrared image of the universe ever created. The SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster, depicted in the First Deep Field, is abundant with countless galaxies. The image captured an area the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length, depicting only a minuscule portion of the huge universe. Light from a single galaxy traveled for 13.1 billion years before being captured by Webb's sophisticated mirrors. Previously, this long-exposure photo of the universe was recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope, but it took weeks to produce, whereas Webb captured it in just 12.5 hours.
- 2/10A zoomed-in view of images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope in near-infrared light for the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey.
Most distant active supermassive black hole
Discovery of the most distant active supermassive black hole to date was made possible by the JWST. This cosmic monster lurks at the heart of the galaxy CEERS 1019, which existed only 570 million years after the Big Bang. The black hole weighs around nine million solar masses and is considered to be unusually small due to its formation in the early universe. The black hole within CEERS 1019 is similar to the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, which is 4.6 million times the mass of the Sun.
Webb's first exoplanet
On January 11, 2023, NASA reported finding Webb's first exoplanet, LHS 475 b, located 41 light-years away from the Earth. Webb’s transmission spectrum revealed it to be an Earth-sized terrestrial planet. Astronomers from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory attempted to examine the atmospheric conditions of this exoplanet. The high-sensitivity telescope detected a variety of molecules in the atmosphere, but scientists were unable to determine whether the exoplanet had an atmosphere or not. However, detecting molecules in the atmosphere of the distant world is a remarkable achievement for Webb.
Earliest complex organic molecules
Thanks to its specialized instruments, JWST was able to discover complex chemical compounds in a galaxy 12 billion light-years away from Earth. The galaxy SPT0418-47 formed when the universe was only 1.5 billion years old (less than 10 percent of its present age). Webb identified the presence of molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAH. These compounds can be found in the oil and coal resources on our planet. Organic molecules are difficult to detect in the galaxy because they are largely masked by cosmic dust. However, Webb's infrared vision and gravitational lensing approach allowed the telescope to collect this unique set of data.
Splendid views of Saturn
Over the past year, Webb also revealed stunning new views of the planets in our solar system. On June 25, 2023, Webb spent hours taking comprehensive photographs of Saturn, the solar system's second-largest planet. The telescope's Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) instrument recorded the ringed planet in all its glory. The images also reveal some of the planet's moons, including Dione, Enceladus, and Tethys. Saturn was captured as part of the Webb Guaranteed Time Observation program 1247.
- 6/10This deep galaxy field from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) shows an arrangement of 10 distant galaxies marked by eight white circles in a diagonal, thread-like line.
First filaments of the cosmic web
JWST looked back in time to find the first filaments of the cosmic web, a network of massive interconnecting filaments of galaxies separated by 'gigantic barren voids'. The length of this gigantic filament is estimated to be a whopping three million light-years long. A distant, bright quasar — an object fueled by an active supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy — anchors the newly identified structure.
Revealing Jupiter's almost invisible rings
Last summer, Webb acquired new detailed photographs of the gas giant Jupiter. The magnificent images showcase Jupiter's faint rings, tiny moons, and auroras shining brightly at both poles. The famed Red Spot, a large whirling storm, can also be seen in exquisite detail. Webb's Jupiter observations will provide scientists with much more information about Jupiter's atmosphere and surface conditions.
- 8/10In this mosaic image stretching 340 light-years across, Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) displays the Tarantula Nebula star-forming region in a new light.
Sneak peak into the Tarantula Nebula
In September 2022, Webb peered into a dusty area called Tarantula Nebula, a star-forming region. Noted to be one of the biggest and brightest star-forming areas in the Local Group (a group of galaxies closest to our Milky Way), the images highlight thousands of hitherto unseen newborn stars wrapped in stellar dust. The data acquired by Webb provided details about the structure and composition of the nebula's gas and dust. Astronomers are interested in the Tarantula Nebula to better understand star formation. Furthermore, this nebula has a chemical makeup identical to that detected during the universe's "cosmic noon", when it was just a few billion years old.
Rare Wolf-Rayet stars 15,000 light years away
One of the first observations made by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope in June 2022 was that of a Wolf-Rayet star. In an advanced stage of stellar evolution, Wolf-Rayet stars lose mass at a rapid rate. However, not all stars go through a short Wolf-Rayet phase before exploding, thus making them hard to detect and study. Webb's infrared instruments were able to capture star WR 124, located in the constellation Sagitta, about 15,000 light years away. Astronomers posit that such dying stars likely provided the young universe with heavy elements that ultimately led to the formation of new stars.
- 10/10This image of the dusty debris disk surrounding the young star Fomalhaut is from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI).
Inner structure of asteroid belts outside our solar system
In May 2023, Webb examined the interior structure of the first asteroid belt found outside our solar system. The massive dusty belts formed around a nearby young, bright star called Fomalhaut, the brightest star in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus. NASA's Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) had found the mysterious ring structure that surrounds Fomalhaut in 1983. And after decades, Webb was finally able to observe the structure of two inner belts in unprecedented details for the first time ever.