From Earth and across space, our telescopes continually image the Universe.
Beyond their scientific value, these images are visually alluring.
They don’t, however, represent what the unaided human eye sees.
Hubble, for instance, often includes ultraviolet and infrared light: information invisible to humans.
Observations from ALMA occur in radio light, and must be “translated” into human vision.
Similarly for X-ray observatories, like Chandra, we assign colors to visually interpret the data.
JWST images, although spectacular, have a variety of algorithms for assigning colors.
Images unveiled by various collaborations frequently leverage different color palettes.
From even a visual inspection, however, there is one key to identifying JWST images.
That key is the pattern of diffraction spikes that appear around point sources, such as stars.
Whereas many observatories, like Hubble, produce “diamond spike” patterns, JWST’s spikes are unique.
There are six large spikes and two smaller spikes to every bright point source in JWST images.
- active black holes in the MIRI images,
- foreground Milky Way stars in deep NIRCam images,
- and even bright moons within planetary systems.
The honeycomb-patterned hexagonal mirrors, plus the three main support struts, are the culprits.
Originally called the “nightmare snowflake,” these beautiful spikes are JWST’s telltale signature.
Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words.