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Starts With A Bang

Highlights from James Webb’s first two months of science operations

The first set of James Webb's images blew us all away. In just 2 mere months, it's seen highlights that no one could have predicted.
The Hubble vs. JWST views of the Cartwheel galaxy (and its surroundings) showcase a spectacular difference: the 1995 vs. 2022 images reveal how foreground objects, like interloping stars from within our own galaxy, have moved relative to the background features in these external galaxies over the past 27 years. In addition the JWST data reveals features that Hubble could never see.
(Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team; ESA/Hubble & NASA)
Key Takeaways
  • From planets to nebulae to galaxies nearby all the way to the distant Universe, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has shown us the Universe as we've never seen it before.
  • Although the first five images were all revolutionary, each in their own way, JWST has continued to explore the Universe, revealing features that were previously unknown and unseen.
  • As only a few of these images have been publicized, most people — even most astronomers — have never seen all of them. Enjoy exploring humanity's newest views of the Universe!

Historically, our grandest views of deep space came from Hubble.

The Cartwheel galaxy, shown at right, is a stunning example of an imperfect ring galaxy, where a central nucleus of old stars and a bright ring of young stars are connected by a thin bridge of gas and stars throughout it. The cause of this ring, an interloping galaxy that smashed through the Cartwheel, is at the top left of the image, itself forming new stars as a result of the interaction.
(Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)

As of July 2022, however, a superior space telescope has emerged.

This near-infrared image from JWST showcases a variety of features present in the Cartwheel galaxy and its companions that cannot be revealed by Hubble. Hubble’s smaller size, lower resolution, warmer temperatures, and inferior instrumentation ensure that JWST’s unique capabilities will reveal features in almost any object that have never been seen previously.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) takes us beyond what anything else has seen.

This image features data from 10 different JWST filters: 6 from the near-infrared and 4 from the mid-infrared. As a result, features that include stars, gas, dust, and various molecular signatures can all be revealed at once, showcasing where star formation is occurring and will occur in the future, among many other features.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)

Nearby, Jupiter appears as never before.

This three-filter view of the planet Jupiter from JWST’s NIRCam features a 3.6 micron (red) channel, a 2.12 micron (yellow-green) channel, and a 1.5 micron (blue) channel. All of these wavelengths are aligned as best as possible given the planet’s rotation, and then composited to reveal the extraordinary features seen here.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; Processing: J. Schmidt)

Its bands, rings, aurorae, and moons appear alongside background galaxies.

This animation showcases JWST’s unique near-infrared views of Jupiter. In addition to the bands, the great red spot, and the “atmospheric haze” visible at the day/night boundary of Jupiter, a number of moon, ring, and auroral features are seen and labeled. Note, away from the planet, various faint “smudges” can be seen: these are distant background galaxies, rarely seen in the same frame as a bright planet-like object, but JWST’s superior optics can reveal them.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; Processing: R. Hueso (UPV/EHU) & J. Schmidt)

JWST viewed exoplanets directly with infrared imaging.

Around the star HIP 65426, which JWST obscures with its high-contrast coronagraph, an orbiting gas giant exoplanet has been revealed. Combining two near-infrared and two mid-infrared filters, we can reveal this planet, which is ~10,000 times fainter than the star it orbits.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Alyssa Pagan (STScI); Science: Aarynn Carter (UCSC), ERS 1386 Team))

Spectroscopically, transits detect absorbed light

Transiting exoplanets don’t block the same fraction of a star’s light in all different wavelengths, but rather different fractions are absorbed and transmitted in a wavelength-dependent way. Just as Earth’s atmosphere preferentially transmits redder light but scatters bluer light, the exoplanet WASP-39b allows different fractions of light through its atmosphere in a wavelength-dependent way that JWST can detect.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI), Joseph Olmsted (STScI))

and transmitted light: revealing molecular presences.

With its first science release, JWST revealed the presence of water, spectroscopically, in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. With its measurement of WASP-39b, it has revealed the abundant presence of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. No doubt, more molecules in varying concentrations will be found around a variety of worlds with JWST.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI), Joseph Olmsted (STScI))

Star-forming nebulae display unprecedented details.

The near-infrared view of the Tarantula Nebula taken with JWST is higher in resolution and broader in wavelength coverage than any previous view. Expanding on what Hubble taught us, we can now study star-formation without our Local Group in greater detail than ever.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)

From new, young, blue stars,

The central concentration of this young star cluster found in the heart of the Tarantula Nebula is known as R136, and contains many of the most massive stars known. Among them is R136a1, which comes in at about ~260 solar masses, making it the heaviest known star. All told, this is the largest star-forming region within our Local Group, and it will likely form hundreds of thousands of new stars.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)

to gaseous features,

As spectroscopic imaging with JWST reveals, chemicals like atomic hydrogen, molecular hydrogen, and hydrocarbon compounds occupy different locations in space within the Tarantula Nebula, showcasing how varied even a single star-forming region can be.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)

JWST showcases what Hubble cannot.

This animation shows the transition between JWST’s near-infrared views, which showcase new stars and light-absorbing dust, versus the mid-infrared view, where warm dust is illuminated and stars are practically invisible. These views take us far beyond what Hubble was capable of seeing, and into a wavelength-and-resolution realm we’ve never entered before.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)

Meanwhile, JWST’s initial alignment image grew spectacularly.

JWST’s diffraction spikes, seen in great detail around the star 2MASS J17554042+6551277, are the same spikes seen in the first successful alignment image. The science data, as evidenced by the glorious detail of background galaxies, is now being put to use at long last.
(Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI)

Now a 140+ megapixel view, it expansively reveals far-flung galaxies.

This small-seeming image is a scaled down version of the full ~140 megapixel field-of-view comprehensively examined after JWST had been fully aligned and calibrated. The bright star at the lower-left of the photo is the famed “alignment star” from JWST’s first aligned image.
(Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI)

Just 1% of this view contains ~100 identifiable objects.

This is a full-resolution view of just 1% of the field used to capture the star 2MASS J17554042+6551277, which was responsible for being JWST’s first alignment target. About ~100 galaxies are revealed here, indicating that around ~10,000 galaxies must be present and visible to JWST over the entire field-of-view of the full image.
(Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI)

Massive, evolved, complex galactic shapes appear at all observed distances.

The early results of the GLASS Early Release Science program reveal over 200 sources that span a variety of ranges in redshift and mass. This helps teach us what shapes galaxies take on over a range of masses and stages in cosmic time/evolution, revealing a number of very massive, very early, yet very evolved-looking galaxies.
(Credit: C. Jacobs, K. Glazebrook et al., arXiv:2208.06516, 2022)

Additionally, disk galaxy candidates surprisingly appeared at extremely early times.

The Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS Survey) broke the record for largest deep-field image taken by JWST, previously held by the first lensing cluster image released. This small patch of sky, near the handle of the Big Dipper, contains some ~200 luminous disk galaxy candidates found within the first ~3 billion years of the Universe’s history. This is surprisingly early, but could hold many lessons for us about the formation and evolution of galaxies.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; CEERS collaboration)

JWST also viewed the most distant star ever: Earendel.

This view of Earendel, presently the most distant star known, comes courtesy of the JWST. With 8 NIRCam filters having observed this star, we’ve been able to determine that it’s most likely a single star, ~1,000,000 times as luminous as the Sun, with surface temperatures of around ~15,000 K and a lensing magnification of at least a factor of 4,000. Follow-up observations, including spectra, will be taken later in 2022.
(Credit: B. Welch & D. Coe et al., arXiv:2208.09007, 2022)

But arguably its greatest images are of individual galaxies.

The spiral galaxy NGC 7496, previously viewed by Hubble, shows a remarkable amount of illuminated dust lanes, copious amounts of feedback from new stars, and the earliest stages of star-formation across a galaxy in gory details. With JWST, we’re seeing the Universe in detail as never before.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI, PHANGS team; Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt & Janice Lee)

JWST’s views reveal gas, dust, stars, and more.

This view of the gas, dust, stars, and more in galaxy NGC 1365 comes to us courtesy of the JWST and the PHANGS team, which works to investigate the detailed properties of dust-rich star-forming galaxies. Images like this help allow us to understand how and where stars form over the course of a galaxy’s life.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI, PHANGS team; Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt)

Central black hole-containing cores shine in mid-infrared light.

This mid-infrared (MIRI) view of the luminous infrared galaxy VV 114, shown alongside the older Hubble view, reveals a brilliant nucleus in the eastern portion as well as a western component rich in young star clusters. The presence of an active galactic nucleus in the SW portion of the eastern region is revealed, along with ~40 star-forming knots, ~10 of which have no optical counterpart. The presence of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons are seen as well.
(Credit: A. S. Evans et al., arXiv:2208.14507v1, 2022)

Star-forming gas bridges appear between interacting galaxies.

The galaxy IC 1623B, viewed in a variety of near-infrared filters with JWST, reveals details about the interstellar medium between two active, interacting, star-forming galaxies. These NIRCam images represent only a portion of the total data, which will include NIRSpec and MIRI images, that will be taken as respects this galaxy.
(Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI, Lee Armas et al.; Processing: R. Colombari)

From Hubble,

This view of the Phantom galaxy, also known as Messier 74/NGC 628, combined blue, visible, and near-infrared images from Hubble, along with a particular emission line of hydrogen to create this composite. While this was previously our best view of the Phantom galaxy, revealing many interesting features, JWST’s views of it have already revealed so much more.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration; Acknowledgment: R. Chandar (University of Toledo) and J. Miller (University of Michigan))

to JWST’s near-infrared eyes,

This purely infrared view of the Phantom Galaxy, Messier 74, showcases cooler stars and intricate dusty structures found lining and between the galaxy’s spiral arms. These structures have only been hinted at in previous views; JWST’s unique capabilities have revealed them for the first time.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Processing: Robert Eder)

to the eerie, unfamiliar mid-infrared views,

This mid-infrared view taken with JWST shows the Phantom Galaxy (M74) with prominent and well-defined spiral arms. All told, the PHANGS collaboration will study 19 nearby star-forming galaxies to better understand how and when star-formation is triggered, measuring the masses and ages of star clusters inside in the process.
(Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team; Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt)

the Universe is coming into focus as never before under Webb’s watchful eyes.

This three-panel animation shows three different views of the center of the Phantom Galaxy, M74 (NGC 628). The familiar color image is the Hubble (optical) view, the second panel showcases near-infrared views from both Hubble and Webb, while the mid-infrared panel shows the warm dust that will eventually form new stars at a later time, containing data from JWST alone.
(Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team; ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Chandar; Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt; Animation: E. Siegel)

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.

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