The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is rapidly revolutionising astronomy. The powerful observatory released its first batch of images on 12 July 2022, and has been putting out a steady stream of astonishing observations ever since. These are eight of the most stunning and fascinating images from its first year of science – a tiny fraction of what it is expected to accomplish in the years to come.
Among the first set of images released was “Webb’s First Deep Field”, which was at the time the deepest image of the cosmos ever taken. JWST has taken deeper images since this one, but for many astronomers this image was the first herald of a new era of astronomy. Several of the galaxies in this image had never been seen before and seem to be the most distant galaxies ever spotted or examined in detail – discoveries that could upend our understanding of the early universe.
Pillars of Creation
Eagle-eyed readers may recognise these towering spires of dust and gas as the Pillars of Creation, a star-forming region within the Eagle nebula. The area was the subject of one of the most famous astronomical images of all time, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, and JWST built on that legacy by showing the billowing clouds in more detail than ever before, shining light on the process of star formation.
JWST doesn’t spend all its time gazing into the depths of the distant universe – this image of Jupiter is perhaps its most beautiful image of one of the planets within our own solar system. It shows the planet’s northern and southern aurora in light blue, as well as its tenuous rings and two of its small moons. The inner workings of giant planets remain somewhat mysterious to researchers, who hope that pictures like this will show how the different layers within these huge worlds interact with one another.
This is the Cartwheel galaxy, one of the weirdest galaxies in the universe. It was probably once a spiral galaxy similar to the Milky Way, until one of its companion galaxies blasted right through its centre in a perfect bull’s-eye, creating ripples of stars and gas that caused the nested ring shapes visible in this image. In previous pictures, its details are obscured by clouds of dust, but JWST’s ability to peer through that shroud allowed researchers to analyse it in more detail, finding unexpected bursts of star formation in the aftermath of the smash-up that gave the galaxy its striking shape.
The star at the centre of this image is on the verge of going supernova. It is called WR 124 and is a Wolf-Rayet star, a star that has begun to shed its outer layers as it gets ready to explode. This happens because the star has run out of hydrogen to fuse in its core and begun to burn through heavier elements instead, creating a powerful wind that strips away the gas and dust in the star’s outer layers to create a cloud like the one shown in purple here. Within the next few million years, all of the extraordinary details shown in this image will disappear as WR 124 explodes dramatically.
This ghostly spiral is actually the centre of a spiral galaxy, but with the intricate details of its arms revealed by JWST’s unique infrared capabilities. It is called M74 or the Phantom galaxy, and is about 32 million light years from Earth. The tendrils of dust and gas that make up its spiral arms wind outwards from the galaxy’s centre, which appears unexpectedly empty aside from its cluster of hot, blue stars. Pictures like this will not only help astronomers understand star formation, but also the evolution of galaxies.
The rings in this image may seem like a simple camera artefact, but they are, astonishingly, real. This star system, called WR 140, contains one Wolf-Rayet star and one supergiant star about 20 times the mass of the sun. The rings are made of carbon-rich dust, puffed out from the stars and spread around them every time they orbit one another, so they can be used a bit like the rings in a tree trunk to follow more than a century of dust production. In total, the rings extend more than 10 trillion kilometres from the stars, and the dust from rings like these could be crucial in distributing carbon out into the universe, where it is later incorporated into new stars and planets.
Southern Ring nebula
Both of these pictures show the Southern Ring nebula, a vast expanse of dust and gas shaped by a deadly dance of at least four stars all orbiting one another. The primary star at the nebula’s centre has gone through several episodes of shedding its outer layers, after which the surrounding stars whirl through, stirring the hot gas into the strands and arches visible in these JWST images. The picture on the left shows the gas cloaking the entire nebula, while the one on the right pierces through that gas to display the stars within. Until JWST, we only knew of two stars embedded in the nebula, but these new images revealed that there are four or five – like so many other cosmic objects, this billowing cloud is far more complex than anyone realised.