A sparkling landscape of baby stars. A foamy blue and orange view of a dying star. Five galaxies in a cosmic dance.
The splendours of the universe glow in a new batch of images released from NASA’s powerful new James Webb Space Telescope.
The unveiling of the images from the $10 billion telescope began on July 11 at the White House in the US with a sneak peek of the first shot — a jumble of distant galaxies that went deeper into the cosmos than humanity has ever seen.
Four more images were released the next day. These images show parts of the universe other telescopes have already seen, but Webb’s sheer power, distant location from Earth and use of the infra-red light* spectrum* showed them in a new light that scientists said was almost as much art as science.
“It’s the beauty but also the story,” said NASA senior Webb scientist John Mather. “It’s the story of where did we come from.”
Mr Mather said the more he looked at the images, the more he became convinced that life exists elsewhere in those thousands of stars and hundreds of galaxies.
Scientists hope to use the James Webb Space Telescope to glimpse light from the first stars and galaxies that formed 13.7 billion years ago, just 100 million years from the universe-creating Big Bang.
The telescope also will scan the atmospheres of alien worlds for possible signs of life.
“Every image is a new discovery and each will give humanity* a view of the humanity that we’ve never seen before,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson.
Webb’s use of the infra-red light spectrum allows the telescope to see through the cosmic dust and see faraway light from the corners of the universe, scientists said.
“We’ve really changed the understanding of our universe,” said European Space Agency director general Josef Aschbacher.
The European and Canadian space agencies joined NASA to build the telescope, which was launched in December after years of delays and cost overruns.
Webb is considered the successor* to the highly successful, but ageing, Hubble Space Telescope.
Some of Hubble’s most stunning images have been shots of the Carina nebula, one of the bright stellar nurseries* in the sky, about 7600 light-years away.
Webb project scientist Klaus Pontoppidan decided to focus one of Webb’s early gazes on that location because he knew it would be a beautiful shot. The result was an image of a colourful landscape of bubbles and cavities* where stars were being born.
“This is art,” Mr Pontoppidan said. “I really wanted to have that landscape. It has that contrast. We have the blue. We have golden. There’s dark. There’s bright. There’s just a sharp image.”
The cosmic features captured in the other shots are:
Southern Ring nebula
The images show a dying star with a foamy edge of escaping gas. It’s about 2500 light-years away. A light-year is 9.3 trillion kilometres.
“This is the end for this star, but the beginning for other stars,” Mr Pontoppidan explained.
As it dies, it throws off parts that seed* the galaxy with elements used for new stars, he said.
Here five galaxies are captured in a cosmic dance that was first seen 225 years ago in the constellation Pegasus. It includes a black hole that scientists said showed material “swallowed by this sort of cosmic monster.”
Cornell University astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger, who wasn’t part of the Webb team, said the new telescope “has just given us a new, unprecedented 290 million-year-old view of what this Quintet is up to”.
This giant planet is about the size of Saturn and is 1150 light-years away. A gas planet, it’s not a candidate for life elsewhere but a key target for astronomers. Instead of an image, the telescope used its infra-red detectors to look at the chemical composition* of the planet’s atmosphere. It showed water vapour in the super-hot planet’s atmosphere and even found the chemical spectrum* of neon*, showing clouds where astronomers thought there were none.
This was the first “deep field” image released from the James Webb Space Telescope on July 11. It is filled with lots of stars, with massive galaxies in the foreground and faint and extremely distant galaxies peeking through here and there. Part of the image is light from not too long after the Big Bang, which is how astronomers believe the universe started 13.8 billion years ago.
The four most recent images were released one-by-one at an event at NASA’s Goddard Space Center that included cheerleaders with pompoms the colour of the telescope’s golden mirrors.
Webb, the world’s biggest and most powerful space telescope, rocketed away last December from French Guiana in South America.
It reached its lookout point 1.6 million kilometres from Earth in January. Then the lengthy process began to align* the mirrors, get the infra-red detectors cold enough to operate and calibrate* the science instruments, all protected by a sunshade the size of a tennis court.
- infra-red light: a type of wave of electricity or light that cannot be seen
- humanity: the human race, all the people of the world as a group
- successor: thing that follows or takes the place of another thing
- stellar nurseries: areas of outer space where new stars are formed
- cavities: holes, empty spaces within solid objects
- seed: sow, scatter so that something can grow or develop
- composition: the ingredients or way something is made up
- neon: a chemical element that is a gas with no smell or colour, does not react with other chemicals, and shines red when an electric current goes through it
- align: arrange two or more things in a straight line
- calibrate: correct or adjust something that is used to measure something else
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- What is the name of the telescope that took these images?
- This telescope is considered the successor to which other telescope?
- How many images have been released by NASA?
- How long ago was the Big Bang that astronomers think started universe?
- How many light-years away is the Southern Ring nebula?
LISTEN TO THIS STORY
1. Make a choice
Think about the discoveries that the Webb Space Telescope has made. Which one do you think is the most important? Write sentences giving specific reasons for your choice.
Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science
“The James Webb Space Telescope is a waste of money!” Do you agree with this statement? Use information in the story to write paragraphs explaining your opinion on this.
Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science
Wow word recycle
There are plenty of wow words (ambitious pieces of vocabulary) being used in the article. Some are in the glossary, but there might be extra ones from the article that you think are exceptional as well.
Identify all the words in the article that you think are not common words, and particularly good choices for the writer to have chosen.
Select three words you have highlighted to recycle into your own sentences.
If any of the words you identified are not in the glossary, write up your own glossary for them.