Four astronomers respond to the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope

They've been waiting a long, long time.
Grant Currin
SMACS 0723, Stephan's Quintet, Carina Nebula, Southern Ring NebulaNASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

It's finally happening. 

After decades of planning and years of setbacks. After a harrowing launch and deployment during which 344 different problems could have sunk the $10 billion instrument. After six long months of commissioning and coming online, the most powerful telescope ever built is finally returning images.

And they're spectacular.

At Interesting Engineering, we've covered every image released by the James Webb Space Telescope so far, from the initial alignment images to the first full-color photos released on Monday and Tuesday. Now, we're handing the mic to four of our favorite astronomers to hear what they think about the long-awaited images from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Four astronomers respond to the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope

This is the deepest, sharpest view of extremely distant galaxies that's ever been possible. This image — Webb's First Deep Field — shows a galaxy cluster astronomers call SMACS 0723. The six-pointed objects are stars located (relatively) near Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

For Matthew Kerr, the deep-field image (above) released in a White House ceremony "illustrates the scientific promise of JWST more so than generating "awe" at the beauty of some of the other targets."

The main purpose of JWST is to peer into the past, and this image shows just how well it will do it. If you compare it to the HST version of the same, almost every single galaxy is red (due to redshift) and noisier (due to distance). Because JWST is tuned for near-infrared, it sees these galaxies more like they were back when they emitted the light we're seeing today: bright, vibrant, and colorful.

He says the best way to look at the image is to download the full-resolution version (linked below) and zoom in for a closer look. It's packed with minuscule details, each representing innumerable worlds that astronomers will be exploring for the foreseeable future.

And the big mirror reveals amazing details: I'm picking out possible supernovae, star-forming regions, luminous blue variable stars, who knows what, just with my eyes! (You really do need the full resolution version of this to zoom in and appreciate.) So for me, this is perhaps the first time I've really appreciated how good JWST will be for this type of science.

Four astronomers respond to the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope
You might notice Stephen's Quintet from the movie "It's a Wonderful Life." This image of the famous visual grouping of five galaxies is constructed from nearly 1,000 separate images. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Kerr says the image of Stephen's Quintet "was the first one to actually give me goosebumps when it flashed up." And the image of the Carina nebula left him speechless. "Damn. More goosebumps. I don't even know what to say about this, it's going on my wall," he said. Of course, these photos are just the beginning. With more time to learn the telescope, researchers will be able to make even more spectacular images than they have so far.  

It will be interesting to see how these images evolve as scientists and engineers learn how to get the most out of the JWST images. You can see something like chromatic aberration in the bright point sources. I assume with time folks will figure out the best way to combine these data, and they'll look even better. Certainly, over the decades with HST, that has been the case.

For Joshua Krissansen-Totton, a NASA Sagan fellow at UC Santa Cruz, the five images unveiled earlier this week piqued curiosity and inspired hope. 

For me, as a scientist, seeing the first JWST images was a source of immense excitement because this milestone indicates that we are close to getting answers to some fascinating, long-standing astronomical questions. But for me as a human being, the images were even more impactful in that they made me hopeful about the future.

The astronomer also sees the image as a reason to think that the problems we're facing as a global community aren't as insurmountable as they seem.

Scientific megaprojects such as JWST are the culmination of decades of work by scientists and engineers, and this sustained collective effort is only possible because we as a society have agreed to dedicate substantial resources to the curiosity-driven exploration of the universe. In a time when there are many legitimate reasons to be cynical about the future, the JWST images are an important reminder of our collective potential.

The images also reminded him that despite all the challenges of living — and working as a scientist — right now, this moment in history is a time of flourishing for the sciences and for our understanding of how humanity fits into the broader picture.

I feel incredibly privileged to be a scientist at this time and to be a beneficiary of our shared desire to know what's out there in the universe and to understand why we are here.

Four astronomers respond to the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope
This image — designed to resemble the mountains and valleys of landscapes here on Earth — shows the edge of a star-forming region called NGC 3324, located in the Carina Nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Mike Boylan-Kolchin, an associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin, found the images overwhelming — and a good reminder of what humans can accomplish when we commit to collaboration. 

It's hard not to be overwhelmed with a sense of awe. The images themselves are beautiful, the accompanying spectroscopic data is revolutionary, and the sense of potential for scientific discovery feels limitless. But the feeling I can't shake is how extraordinary humans can be when dreaming big and working together to accomplish what may have once seemed impossible.

Boylan-Kolchin also sees the images as a reminder of how quickly — in historical time — scientists have come to understand our place in the universe.

100 years ago, humanity didn't even know whether there was a Universe beyond the Milky Way galaxy; now, we are able to routinely detect and quantify objects whose light was emitted over 13 billion years ago and to measure the composition of the atmosphere around a planet 1000 light years away.

The telescope itself is a remarkable achievement both scientifically and technologically, but more fundamentally, it's amazing how the people from one small planet in an unimaginably vast cosmos are able to transcend their limited surroundings to make sense of the Universe around them.

Four astronomers respond to the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope
For thousands of years, the dimmer star at the center of these images has been sending gas and dust out into the universe. The light captured by Webb had been hurtling through space for more than 2,500 years. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The images released at the NASA event on Tuesday morning, however, do also inspire awe. Kerr says of Southern Ring Nebula, "the more I stare at it, the cooler it is.

This will enable a detailed study of the dynamics in the nebula because you can now see how the structure is arranged from the largest scales (the structure of the ring itself) to the smallest scales. The juxtaposition of the NIR and MIR images is interesting, too, since the MIR does a better job of highlighting emission from dust. (you can see that, too, in the background galaxies -- look at how much the background spiral galaxy in the upper left pops out in the MIR image!

Finally, NASA scientist Thomas Greene, whose team will soon take the reins and use Webb to scope out several exoplanets, says the images show what the telescope can do — and hint at the questions it will answer. 

The first science images from the Webb space telescope illustrate its technical and scientific capabilities. This is because they are made from all 4 of the telescope's science instruments, and they show its power for uncovering new information about many aspects of the universe.

As a set, they show how Webb will show us the first galaxies that formed in the universe, how galaxies evolve and interact to form stars, the details of star and planet formation, what happens when stars die, and it will observe the atmospheres of planets around other stars to see what chemicals are in their atmospheres and whether they could possibly host life. All in all, this addresses the big questions we humans have been asking ourselves for thousands of years: How old is the universe, where did we come from, how did we get here, and are we alone?

As Greene indicates, the most exciting thing about the James Webb Space Telescope is that it's just getting started. These first images, while spectacular, don't even show everything the new instrument can do. In the weeks since they were released, Webb has broken records and returned even more stunning images.

For example, earlier this week, a citizen scientist named Judy Schmidt released this rendering of data from Webb:

Four astronomers respond to the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope
James Webb's image of NGC 628. Credit: Judy Schmidt

Now that Webb is in place and active, the data it provides will enable a tremendous amount of scientific progress and a huge number of images that show us just how amazing our universe really is.

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