What has the James Webb Space Telescope discovered so far?

12 Jul 2023

Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and K. Pontoppidan (STScI). Image Processing: A. Pagan (STScI)

From stars on the cusp of going supernova, cosmic tarantulas and record-breaking space smoke, the James Webb Space Telescope has spotted many amazing sights in the distant cosmos.

It has been one year since the powerful James Webb Space Telescope revealed its first historic photo of the universe, stunning scientists worldwide with its immense detail.

The advanced tools of this space observatory lets us see further into space than ever before, unlocking new insights into how the universe works. The images can be so in-depth that the results have been described as a “new age of astronomy”.

Only one month after the first images were released, the successor to the Hubble Telescope revealed new insights on how stars form, galaxies merge and the early period of the universe. The images are a sight to behold, showing the cosmos in awe-inspiring detail.

The discoveries have grown significantly since then, giving scientists a vast treasure trove of data to sift through. To date, there are more than 750 scientific publications that contain “significant” amounts of content from the James Webb Space Telescope, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Astronomers will be peering through the data for decades, while the observatory continues its journey to discover the mysteries of the cosmos.

As we celebrate a year of cosmic-scale discoveries and wait for the next batch of eye-watering images, let’s take a look at some of the highlights the James Webb Space Telescope has uncovered so far.

A star is born: Our closest stellar nursery

A cloud complex in space, showing different gas clouds of different colours clashing together in space, with multiple stars visible across the image.

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and K. Pontoppidan (STScI). Image Processing: A. Pagan (STScI)

Celebrating its successful first year, NASA has shared a new image from the James Webb Space Telescope today (12 July), which reveals a small star-forming region in the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex.

This image reveals jets bursting from young stars, with different coloured clouds of cosmic dust colliding into each other. The red dust is molecular hydrogen, while some of the stars have the shadow of a circumstellar disk, which hints at the creation of future planets.

Despite the cosmic chaos visible in the image, NASA said this is a relatively small and quiet stellar nursery relative to others. It is also the closest star-forming region to Earth, with many of the young stars being similar in size to our own sun, or smaller.

This image was taken using Webb’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam), the observatory’s primary camera that simultaneously images the cosmos in two different infrared ranges.

Record-breaking space smoke

Bright blue circle surrounded by orange dots forming a larger circle. Background is pitch dark with a small red dot to the top left of the image taken by the James Webb telescope.

A galaxy (in blue) helped to give the James Webb Space Telescope a better view of organic molecules (bright orange spots) in a second galaxy. Image: J Spilker/S Doyle, NASA, ESA, CSA

Last month, astronomers discovered smoke molecules in a distant galaxy, which marked the first time these molecules were discovered so far away.

The galaxy is 12.3bn light years away from the Earth, only 1.5bn years after the Big Bang. Despite this distance, an international team was able to detect polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – chemical compounds found in soot or smoke.

The researchers behind the discovery claimed it pushed the record for detecting similar, complex molecules back by about a billion years. The study also showcased the sheer power of Webb, even though the spectrometer aboard the telescope that made the measurement had experienced a “sudden and surprising degradation” in performance.

James Webb’s first exoplanet

Illustration of a rocky planet, visible from the light of a red star in the distance.

An illustration of the exoplanet LHS 475 b, which is 41 light-years away in the Octans constellation. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

While looking at massive, distant galaxies is an area James Webb excels at, the space telescope has also boosted our understanding of exoplanets – or planets that orbit a different star to our own sun.

At the start of 2023, the space observatory spotted its first exoplanet called LHS 475 b, which is 41 light-years away and of a very similar diameter to the Earth.

NASA said the James Webb is the only operating telescope that can categorise the atmosphere of Earth-sized exoplanets. Scientists leading the research team behind the discovery said the results highlighted the precision of the telescope, making rocky exoplanets a “new frontier” of future discoveries.

Wish upon a supernova star

Image of stars in the universe, with a large star in the centre surrounded by red and pink gases.

Image of the massive star WR 124, shown during the Wolf-Rayet phase of its life. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

The universe is a busy place and Webb has the instruments to see cosmic events just as they’re at their most exciting point. One of the best examples of this is the image of WR 124 – a star on the cusp of its explosive death.

The image captures the star before it goes supernova, which is when a star explodes at the end of its life cycle and releases a massive cloud of hot gas and space dust into the cosmos.

The massive star was captured in the Wolf-Rayet phase of its life, the period just before a supernova where the star sheds its outer layers. Webb’s powerful instruments were able to capture this moment in incredible detail, giving a very rare and valuable sight for astronomers.

Being able to observe the cosmic dust created by these types of supernovas is important to astronomers, as it can help shed light on the early points of the universe. NASA has said dust is “integral” to the workings of the universe, as it shelters forming stars, clumps together to create planets and eventually helps create the building blocks for life on Earth.

But currently, there is more dust in the universe than astronomers can explain. It is hoped that observations made from these type of images can let astronomers see if dust grains are large enough to survive supernova events, which would help explain the current “dust budget surplus”.

Universe breakers: Ancient galaxies

Six images with red dots of light in the centre, believed to be ancient galaxies.

Six candidate galaxies, which are believed to have existed roughly 600m years after the Big Bang. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology). Image processing: G. Brammer (Niels Bohr Institute’s Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen).

From the release of its first image, the Webb telescope gave astronomers vast amounts of data to delve into. Through a tiny spot in that image, researchers made a discovery that could shake up our understanding of the early universe.

Astronomers analysing the dataset discovered what appears to be six ancient galaxies. If it’s correct, these galaxies would have existed when the universe was around 3pc of its current age, roughly 500m to 700m years after the Big Bang. But these galaxies are far larger and more developed than what would be expected in the early days of the universe.

Joel Leja, assistant professor at Penn State who was involved in the study, said the idea that massive galaxy formation began so early in the history of the universe “upends” our understanding on the early universe.

“We’ve been informally calling these objects ‘universe breakers’ – and they have been living up to their name so far,” Leja said.

Opening Pandora’s Cluster

James Webb image of thousands of galaxies in Pandora’s Cluster. Many little colourful dots and arcs can be seen across the darkness of the universe.

An image of Pandora’s Cluster, showing three clusters of massive galaxies coming together to form a megacluster. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology) and R. Bezanson (University of Pittsburgh). Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

In another deep field image, the James Webb Space Telescope captured a distant region of space in unprecedented detail, exceeding scientists’ expectations.

This section of space is known as Pandora’s Cluster, with the image revealing three clusters of massive galaxies coming together to form a megacluster. The combined mass of the galaxy clusters creates a powerful gravitational lens, a natural magnification effect which allows scientists to see the other galaxies.

Ivo Labbe, an astronomer with the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, described the image of Pandora’s Cluster as a “stronger, wider, deeper, better lens than we have ever seen before”.

“My first reaction to the image was that it was so beautiful, it looked like a galaxy formation simulation,” Labbe said. “We had to remind ourselves that this was real data, and we are working in a new era of astronomy now.”

Caught in a Webb: The cosmic tarantula

An image of the Tarantula Nebula, with dust and stars visible in the image. Taken from the James Webb Space Telescope.

A mosaic image stretching 340 light years across the Tarantula Nebula, captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

Looking at another stellar nursery, the James Webb telescope was able to spot thousands of never-before-seen young stars in 30 Doradus, nicknamed the Tarantula Nebula due to the appearance of its dusty filaments in previous images.

It is the biggest star-forming region in the Local Group – the galaxies nearest to our Milky Way – and has long been a favourite for astronomers studying star formation.

Webb’s images helped to shed light on the composition of the Tarantula Nebula and also revealed protostars – very young stars that are still gathering mass. In time, it is expected that protostars visible in the image will eventually emerge and help shape the nebula further.

The infrared planet

Three images of Mars, with the left showing base maps and the images on the right taken from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Images of Mars captured by the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (right), with a reference map from NASA (left). Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Mars JWST/GTO team

While the NASA observatory is known for gazing as far as we can possibly look in the universe, its powerful instruments have also been used for discoveries closer to home.

Last year, Webb was able to capture in-depth images of Mars, which can be used to study short-term phenomena such as dust storms, weather patterns and seasonal changes.

The red planet presents challenges for the powerful space telescope however, as its instruments are so sensitive that the infrared light of Mars is “blinding” for the space observatory, according to NASA.

As a result, astronomers had to adjust for the extreme brightness by using very short exposures and applying special data analysis techniques.

The team behind these observations said they would use the imaging and spectroscopic data to explore regional differences across Mars and search for trace gases in the atmosphere, including methane and hydrogen chloride.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic