NASA reveals glorious new James Webb images of the ancient universe
We're only at the beginning of James Webb's journey.
And now we have an idea of what the next few years will have in store. It will be a time marked by awe-inspiring images of distant galaxies and massive "cosmic cliffs" shrouding baby stars.
Yesterday, U.S. President Biden revealed the first full-color image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to the world. NASA described it as the "deepest, sharpest infrared view of the universe to date."
Now, the U.S. space agency has revealed four stunning new observations taken by the world's most powerful space observatory. Follow along with live updates as well as on the NASA TV broadcast below.
James Webb spectrum readings reveal water in gas exoplanet's atmosphere
NASA just released new spectrum readings of a gas exoplanet 1,150 light-years away from Earth. James Webb's massive 21-feet (6.5-meter) diameter gold-coated mirror and its instruments took the readings by capturing starlight filtered through the atmosphere of the distant world.
The exoplanet, WASP-96 b, is composed mainly of gas and it orbits its star every 3.4 days. The planet has roughly half the mass of Jupiter.
Crucially, JWST's readings revealed there is water in WASP-96 b's atmosphere. It's an incredibly exciting sign of the discoveries that are still to come for the space observatory that it has already found a planet harboring a vital component for life.
NASA says its new observations of WASP-96 b — the most detailed exoplanet spectrum readings to date — show the "unambiguous signature of water, indications of haze & evidence for clouds (once thought not to exist there)".
An image of a dying star
Second on the list, NASA revealed two highly-detailed images of the Southern Ring nebula and its pair of stars by James Webb's Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) cameras.
The Southern Ring, or "Eight-Burst" nebula, is a planetary nebula, composed of shells of dust and gas that are shed by dying Sun-like stars. The dying star, located approximately 2,000 lightyears away from Earth, is at the center of each image.
"The dimmer, dying star is expelling gas and dust that Webb sees through in unprecedented detail," NASA explains.
Webb's largest image to date
Stephan's Quintet is a visual grouping of five galaxies, and you have very likely seen it before as it was included in the classic film, "It's a Wonderful Life".
"In Webb’s image of Stephan’s Quintet, we see 5 galaxies, 4 of which interact. (The left galaxy is in the foreground!) Webb will revolutionize our knowledge of star formation & gas interactions in these galaxies," NASA writes on Twitter.
The main James Webb image NASA revealed of Stephan's Quintet (above) is a composite made from data captured by James Webb's NIRSpec and MIRI cameras.
The space agency also revealed an image of the so-called "dancing galaxies" taken solely by the observatory's MIRI camera. The red in the image (below) denotes dusty star-forming regions.
NASA explains that its mosaic of Stephan's Quintet is its largest image to date. Located approximately 290 million light-years away, Stephan's Quintet is found in the constellation Pegasus. It was the first compact galaxy group ever discovered way back in 1877.
James Webb's mind-blowing Carina nebula observation
They saved the best for last.
James Webb has uncovered baby stars behind the "Cosmic Cliffs" of the Carina nebula. To be precise, this image shows the star-forming region NGC 3324 behind the Carina nebula, which is located 7,600 lightyears away.
"Webb’s new view gives us a rare peek into stars in their earliest, rapid stages of formation. For an individual star, this period only lasts about 50,000 to 100,000 years," NASA says.
The Carina Nebula is one of the brightest nebulae in the sky, in the southern constellation Carina. This incredible image shows off one of James Webb's Near Infrared Camera, NIRCam, most crucial capabilities — it has the capacity to peer through dust clouds to observe newly-forming stars. No wonder NASA saved it for last.
The U.S. space agency also revealed a mid-infrared view of the Carina nebula (above), showing "dusty planet-forming disks (in red and pink) around young stars."
Once again, it's worth noting that today's historic event marks the beginning of James Webb's science operations, and there is still a lot to come. As Astrophysicist Knicole Colon pointed out during NASA's live-streamed reveal event, today's images are "just one sliver of data that James Webb is providing us."
The fact that the image revealed yesterday of SMACS 0723 required only 12.5 hours of exposure — while a similar capture by Hubble took 10 days — highlights the speed at which JWST collects data.
Webb is uniquely positioned to solve some of the universe's most enduring mysteries by providing new data on distant worlds, the structures of the very early universe, and elusive forces such as dark matter. In the context of James Webb peering at 13-billion-year-old galaxies, a few weeks or months is nothing. But we really can't wait to see what's next.
This was a breaking news story, and it was updated regularly as new information emerged.