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Part 1: A sky full of stars and possibilities!5 min read

July 13, 2022 4 min read


Part 1: A sky full of stars and possibilities!5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Universe is by and large a mystery. What’s out there? Who is out there? Can we live out there? These are some of the questions that have been asked for decades and decades, with scientists working tirelessly to get answers.

Technology, of course, has helped us uncover several secrets of space, and this recent discovery is about to blow your mind!

NASA has unveiled the first batch of full-colour images that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has sent back to Earth. And these images, dear readers, are absolutely stunning and awe-inspiring.

The James Webb Space Telescope is a space telescope designed primarily to conduct infrared astronomy. As the largest optical telescope in space, its greatly-improved infrared resolution and sensitivity allows it to view objects too old, distant, or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA, the European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute determined the initial targets to show off the JWST’s capabilities. They include the Carina Nebula, Southern Ring, SMACS 0723, WASP-96b and Stephan’s Quintet.

Let’s look at and understand these images one by one….

The Southern Ring nebula as captured by JWST’s NIRCam (on the left) and MIRI instruments. Photo: NASA

The first image revealed was of the Southern Ring nebula, which is around 2,500 light years away and was captured by JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). NASA says the telescope was able to observe gas and dust from a dying star in “unprecedented detail” — far more than what the Hubble Telescope was able to capture in 1998. The image on the left was captured by NIRCam.

The dying star at the centre of the image has been dispelling gas and dust in all directions for thousands of years, NASA says. The observatory was able to show for the first time that it is cloaked in dust. The agency notes that JWST will help researchers develop a better understanding of such planetary nebulae, which aren’t planets but instead “clouds of gas and dust expelled by dying stars.”

Stephan’s Quintet as captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.
Photo: NASA

Next up was a look at Stephan’s Quintet, a group of galaxies in the Pegasus constellation approximately 290 million light years away. Four of the five galaxies collide with each other as they move, “pulling and stretching each other in a gravitational dance,” NASA said.

At more than 150 million pixels, the image of Stephan’s Quintet is the largest one JWST has captured to date (you can see it in full detail on NASA’s website). The visual was assembled from around 1,000 image files. The image covers an area of the sky equal to around a fifth of the Moon’s diameter as seen from Earth!

Another JWST image revealed yesterday is also breathtaking. It depicts the “Cosmic Cliffs” of the Carina Nebula, which is around 7,600 light years away and has stars that are several times larger than the Sun. JWST was able to peer through a veil of dust and gas to observe some baby stars that were un-viewable until now.

The telescope is giving us a rare look at stars in the early stages of their formation, a period of between 50,000 and 100,000 years for an individual star. By the way, the tallest peaks of these cliffs are around seven light years high. That’s 42 trillion miles or so.

Some H2O on a far away planet

Now the image above isn’t pretty like the others, but it is a very important discovery. This is a spectrum. About a half of what Webb will do is spectroscopy. This involves splitting light into its component “colours” to reveal something about a target’s properties — what it’s made of, how fast it’s moving, how hot it is, etc. This is a spectrum obtained for the atmosphere of WASP-96b, a giant planet outside our Solar System, about 1,150 light years from Earth. WASP-96b is a bit like Jupiter; it has a big gaseous shroud. And Webb is able to identify with stunning precision molecules in the atmosphere. WASP-96b is not the right kind of planet to host life —it’s too close to its parent star and therefore too hot. But Webb will be looking for planets that have atmospheres similar to Earth.

The question then is — Could those planets be habitable?

These images are stunning, no doubt. However, they are also proof of the big moment we are having right now in understanding our universe. The images indicate the JWST is working as intended, which should mean we’ll gain much more insight into the cosmos in the coming years.

Sources: NASA, NPR, BBC, Yahoo