Here’s what the James Webb Space Telescope has seen in just a week of looking

A cluster of galaxies
An image of Stephan’s Quintet shows five galaxies and millions of young stars and starburst regions.

A quintet of galaxies. A nursery of infant stars. A weather report for an exoplanet. And a preview of our own sun’s demise.

After years of delays, a 930,000-mile trip into space and months of speculation over what the James Webb Space Telelescope’s first pictures might reveal, NASA on Tuesday released the first complete set of images captured by its $10-billion observatory.

They show stars in their infancy and in their final gasps, along with sweeping views of the cosmos and the majestic objects in it.


“Every dot of light we see here is an individual star, not unlike our sun. And many of these likely also have planets,” NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn said while introducing an image of the Carina Nebula, a multihued landscape of gas and nascent stars.

“It just reminds me that our sun and our planets and, ultimately, us were formed out of the same kind of stuff that we see here,” she said. “We humans really are connected to the universe. We’re made of the same stuff in this beautiful landscape.”

The world gets its first glimpse of ancient light courtesy of NASA’s Webb telescope, the most sophisticated and ambitious deep-space viewing tool yet assembled.

July 12, 2022

As the universe expands, the earliest galaxies move away from us so quickly that the visible light emanating from them is stretched into infrared wavelengths, which neither humans nor the Hubble Space Telescope can see.

But Webb can. That means it’s able to see the very first stars that glowed. The telescope’s two infrared cameras — the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), each tuned to different parts of the light spectrum — can also peer past the dust and gas that sometimes obscure Hubble’s view.

“The images are absolutely spectacular,” said Andrea Ghez, a UCLA astrophysicist who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics for her role in discovering the supermassive black hole at the the Milky Way’s core.


Later this year, Ghez and her colleagues will use Webb to study star formation at the center of our galaxy. Hers is one of 286 research teams NASA has approved to collect observations from Webb in its first year.

“I can’t wait to see what these images will reveal about the broader environment around the black hole,” she said.

The first image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows innumerable galaxies swirling around a central point, like the light thrown off from a disco ball.

July 11, 2022

Michael Ressler, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge who helped design MIRI, said the clearer pictures of objects that had already been seen by the Hubble Space Telescope may be stunning, but they’re not what he finds most exciting — “it’s actually seeing things that we’ve never seen before.”

All of the images released Tuesday point to something scientists didn’t know about the cosmos.

“It’s the beauty but also the story,” NASA astrophysicist John Mather, Webb’s senior project scientist, said after the reveal. “It’s the story of where did we come from.”


Here’s a closer look at what Webb saw in its first weeks on the job.


Webb’s First Deep Field

In 1995, astronomer Robert Williams had the idea to make the Hubble Space Telescope stare for 10 days at a part of the sky that appeared to contain absolutely nothing. Every minute of Hubble’s observing time is precious, and most astronomers scoffed. But Williams was the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs Hubble, so he was able to go ahead with his plan.

It turned out that the apparently empty patch of sky has more than 3,000 spots, blobs and spirals of light — each an entire galaxy. Additional observations raised the census to more than 5,500, the faintest of which were in existence 13.2 billion years ago.

The update provided by the James Webb Space Telescope features a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723. In Webb’s First Deep Field, the cluster is composed primarily of the fuzzy blobs seen across the center of the image below.

The first image released from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope reveals thousands of galaxies.
The first image released from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals thousands of galaxies, including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared wavelength.
( NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

The gravitational pull of a galaxy cluster is so strong that it can bend light coming from the galaxies behind it. The cluster acts like a gigantic lens, magnifying light from the most distant galaxies that would normally be too faint to detect.


Ned Wright, a cosmologist at UCLA, says it’s like adding a telescope to a telescope, providing a porthole into the very distant universe.

“But it’s far from a perfect lens,” he said. So as the galaxies’ light bends under the spell of gravity, it appears to warp, bend and stretch around the galaxy cluster.

The most ancient of the galaxies seen in this image is estimated to be more than 13.1 billion years old.


The Southern Ring Nebula

When a dying star sheds its outer layers and becomes a white dwarf, the released gases become ionized and emit light. This view of the Southern Ring Nebula, some 2,500 light years from Earth, offers a preview of what our own sun will look like in its death throes.

NASA's Webb Telescope has revealed the cloak of dust around the second star at the center of the Southern Ring Nebula.
NASA’s Webb Telescope has revealed the cloak of dust around the second star at the center of the Southern Ring Nebula. It is a hot, dense, white dwarf star that periodically ejected mass, contracted, heated up and pulsated.
(Space Telescope Science Institute / NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO)


For the first time, Webb was able to unshroud the white dwarf — which appears as the red dot in the picture above — from the dust that surrounds it. There’s also a second star, which is younger and looks like a white dot, in a tight orbit with the first. In fact, the close positioning of the two stars might explain why the nebula is oblong.


The Carina Nebula

While the Southern Ring Nebula is the product of the death of a star, the Carina Nebula is a nursery.

The edge of a young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula reveals previously obscured areas of star birth.
The edge of a young, star-forming region in the Carina Nebula reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA.
(NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI )

The image above shows a star-forming region of the Carina Nebula known as NGC 3324. It’s a cloud of interstellar gas and dust, parts of which collapse under the force of gravity from time to time to give birth to new stars. The nebula itself glows brilliantly under the light of these young, bright stars.


Stephan’s Quintet

Stephan’s Quintet is a group of five galaxies that appear close to each other. But detailed studies reveal that the galaxy furthest to the left in the picture below is separate from the group and about seven times closer to us than the others. In spite of being more than 40 million light years away, Webb can resolve countless individual stars sprinkled within this galaxy as if they were in our own neighborhood.


The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the James Webb Space Telescope shows never-before-seen details of Stephan's Quintet.
The Mid-Infrared Instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope shows never-before-seen details of Stephan’s Quintet, including shock waves and tidal tails, gas and stars stripped from the galaxies’ outer regions and hidden areas of star formation.
(Space Telescope Science Institute / NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO)

In this picture frozen in time from more than 300 million years ago, the two galaxies on the bottom right are caught in the act of merging. (Someday, the same thing will happen with our Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy.) Eventually, gravity will ensure that all four nearby galaxies become one giant galaxy. Who knows what the picture looks like now?

MIRI puts a never-seen-before spotlight on areas being torn apart by the merger of these celestial structures, including sweeping tails of gas and dust. It also highlights bursts of star formation.

The galaxy at the top is anchored by an extremely bright, central, supermassive black hole that puts out the energy of 40 billion suns as it gulps up surrounding material.


WASP-96b Exoplanet Atmosphere

When a planet passes in front of its host star, a tiny amount of starlight passes through its atmosphere. As that light interacts with atmospheric gases, each gas molecule dances around in a unique way.


Webb has a powerful instrument that detects the signature of those interactions, allowing scientists to identify the chemical makeup of the atmosphere as a whole. What they really want to know is whether a planet has the oxygen and water vapor necessary for life as we know it, or whether it has vapors of poisonous compounds such as sulphuric acid, as is the case with Venus.

Webb pointed its Near-Infrared Spectrograph, or NIRSpec, toward WASP-96b, a gas giant that’s slightly larger than Jupiter but has half the mass. The planet completes an orbit around its star in just 3.4 days, giving Webb plenty of opportunities to see it in transit.

Atmospheric characteristics of the hot gas giant exoplanet known as WASP-96 b.
A transmission spectrum reveals atmospheric characteristics of the hot gas giant exoplanet known as WASP-96b.

The spectrograph detected telltale signs of water vapor in the form of clouds and haze. That contradicts observations made four years ago with ground-based telescopes that appeared to show that WASP-96b’s atmosphere is completely cloud-free.

“Even I’m still unpacking that,” said JPL’s Tiffany Kataria, who investigates the chemistry of exoplanet atmospheres. “It’s kind of real-time adjustment of science happening.”


The Associated Press contributed to this report.