The universe shines bright in these stunning James Webb images

16 Aug 2022

A star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula, also known as the Cosmic Cliffs. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

The first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope have shined a light on how stars form, galaxies merge and the early days of the universe.

It has been a month since the first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope were released, with scientists searching through the detailed images for new discoveries.

The breathtaking pictures show some of the most unique formations of our universe. The findings are expected to advance our understanding of the cosmos in various ways, such as how stars evolve and galaxies merge, and provide insights into the earliest days of the universe.

As a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space observatory ever built. It was launched last December to advance space exploration beyond the realms of what has, until now, seemed impossible.

Here are some of the images the James Webb Space Telescope has captured to date.

A closer look at Jupiter

A bright image of Jupiter and its moon Europa, in a dark space background.

Jupiter and its moon Europa, visible on the left. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/B Holler/J Stansberry (STScI)

Before the telescope’s operations officially began on 12 July, images were taken to test the space observatory’s various instruments.

These include photos of Jupiter, the massive gas giant in our solar backyard. NASA has since released these images and they show Webb’s ability to track solar system targets and produce images with “unprecedented detail”.

This image was taken using the observatory’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam) and shows distinct white bands that encircle the planet as well as the Great Red Spot, which is a storm big enough to swallow the Earth.

The image also shows the planet’s moon Europa on the left, with sunlight pouring through from behind. The shadow of Europa is also faintly visible on the Great Red Spot.

While the James Webb telescope aims to observe the most distant galaxies, the instruments are also capable of capturing the detail of smaller objects and rings around the planets of our solar system.

Webb’s First Deep Field

An image showing a mass of galaxies and stars in the universe. Parts of the image curve, as the gravity of various galaxies together causes some parts of the image to magnify..

Also known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image is of a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

The “historic” first colour image from James Webb was revealed at a White House event in July, with US president Joe Biden describing the moment as “hard to even fathom”.

The image is the deepest infrared image of our universe yet, showing the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6bn years ago. The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying more distant galaxies behind it and creating the fish-bowl curve for parts of the image.

Along with unprecedented quality, the image also showcases the speed at which these images can be created compared to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The image is a composite made from 12.5 hours of images at different wavelengths, achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble’s deepest fields, which took weeks to create.

A star’s swan song

Two different coloured images of a planetary nebula. A star is visible in the center of the nebula.

The Southern Ring planetary nebula, taken using Webb’s near-infrared camera (left) and mid-infrared instrument (right). Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

These images show details of the Southern Ring planetary nebula that were previously hidden to astronomers. Different elements are captured by two of the space telescope’s key instruments.

The stars – and their layers of light – are prominent in the image from Webb’s NIRCam on the left, while the image from Webb’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) on the right shows for the first time that the second star is surrounded by dust.

NASA said that new details on the late stages of a star’s life will provide a better understanding on how stars evolve and transform their environments.

A galactic merger

A group of five galaxies next to each other, with other stars and galaxies visible in the far distance.

A group of five galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

This photo sheds new light on Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies. This grouping is (relatively) close to us at 290m light years, giving astronomers the chance to study galactic mergers and how they interact.

Webb’s image shows sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions. The photo also shows how galactic mergers can trigger star formation in each other, as clusters of star births are visible.

It is believed scientists will be able to use this image to understand the rate at which supermassive black holes feed and grow. The space observatory also sees star-forming regions much more directly and is able to examine emissions from dust, which was previously impossible.

Cosmic Cliffs

A mass of orange gas that end like cliffs in the middle of the image and more stars above it. There are masses of stars visible in the gas.

A star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula, also known as the Cosmic Cliffs. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

Described as a series of mountains and cliffs, this image shows the edge of a young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. The peaks of these cosmic ‘mountains’ are actually seven light years in height.

Known as the Cosmic Cliffs, Webb’s sensitive instruments are able to peer through the layers of cosmic dust, showing previously invisible regions of star birth. The ‘steam’ at the top of the nebula is hot, ionised gas and dust streaming away.

Being able to see deeper into this stellar nursery helps to shed light on the process of star formation. Protostellar jets can be seen shooting out from some of these young stars. NASA said the youngest sources appear as red dots in the dark, dusty region of the cloud.

It is hoped images such as these will answer further questions on star formation, such as what determines the number of stars that form in certain regions, or why stars form with a certain mass.

Cartwheel galaxy

A large red galaxy with two smaller galaxies to the left and multiple small planets and galaxies visible in distant space.

The cartwheel galaxy, 500m light years away. A composition image combining Webb’s NIRCam and MIRI instruments. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Webb ERO production team

Bringing both of Webb’s primary instruments together, this composite image reveals details of this unique, cartwheel-style galaxy.

This galaxy appears to have formed from a high-speed collision that occurred about 400m years ago. The image shows two rings, a bright inner ring and a colourful outer ring, expanding outward from the centre of the collision.

Webb’s instruments have managed to capture this cartwheel galaxy in a transitory time, as NASA is unsure what form the galaxy will eventually take. The snapshot provides a perspective on what happened to the galaxy in the past and what it may do in the future.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic