This week NASA released the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, and it is pretty amazing stuff.
The Webb Telescope is a joint effort by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. From its position far out in space, without having to peer through the Earth’s atmosphere, the Webb Telescope can see infrared light that is not detectable by the human eye and can position its powerful mirror assembly to peer into the deepest recesses of the universe. The images from the first five targets of the Telescope show its versatility; they range from a look at objects that are basically in our stellar neighborhood, only a few thousand light years distant, to a look at SMACS 0723, a cluster of galaxies that are 4.6 billion light years away.
And we can give NASA and its partners credit for a bit of whimsy in their choices, too. They decided one of the targets should be a cluster of galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet–familiar to anyone who has watched It’s A Wonderful Life as the home territory of the angel Clarence–and the image at the bottom of this post shows how the galaxies interact with each other and form new stars in a kind of exquisite gravitational dance.
My favorite images from the first five targets are of the amoeba-like Southern Ring planetary nebula, shown above. The nebula, which is a mere 2,500 light years from Earth, was formed by shells of gas and dust that were ejected by the two dying stars in the center of the array, shown clearly in the photo on the right. Carl Sagan would call the wispy material radiating out into the void “star stuff,” and it’s breathtaking to see.
The Webb Space Telescope has just begun its operations, and its five targets are only a tiny, infinitesimal part of the universe that the telescope will be exploring. Simply put, there’s lots to look at. Prepare to be amazed.