The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has wrapped up its first full year of scientific operations, and beyond “breaking” cosmology, the telescope has also delivered some of the most spectacular photos of deep space ever seen.
After many years of construction and $10 billion, it appears that the hard work and money has been worth it and then some. The talented scientists, engineers, and image processors have taken humanity on a journey through the cosmos that is unlike any before it.
Their hard work and dedication have pushed humanity’s reach further than ever, detecting light that has been traveling through the vast expanse of space for more than 13 billion years. To grapple with our place in the Universe, we must understand the Universe itself, and Webb has unraveled some of the greatest mysteries while uncovering new puzzles. Within each of the beautiful photos below are incredible new insights, remarkable scientific achievements, and cosmological conundrums.
NGC 346: A Nearby Mirror of the Distant Past
NGC 346 is a young cluster of stars located about 200,000 light-years from Earth in the famed Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). NGC 346 is exciting to scientists because its conditions mirror what the early Universe may have been like about 10 billion years ago when star formation was frenzied and frequent.
The Building Blocks of Life
Webb’s incredible imaging instruments enable it to peer through interstellar dust and resolve details that prior observations have missed. Looking at the Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud 630 light-years from Earth, Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) found the building blocks of life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur.
Ancient, Massive Galaxies Defy Explanation
While not among Webb’s most visually interesting images, the space telescope identified six galaxies, as seen about 500 to 700 million years after the Big Bang, that are equal parts exciting and baffling.
Spectacular Scenes Just Before a Supernova Explosion
This beautiful Wolf-Rayet star is the brief phase of a star just before its going supernova. This is the star WR 124, located about 15,000 light-years from Earth in the Sagittarius constellation.
Gravity Bending Spacetime
Even though Webb can peer very far into space — and therefore long into the distant past of the Universe — it must leverage the power of gravitational lensing to detect the faintest, distant light. Gravitational lensing is when a bunch of matter creates a gravitational field that bends and magnifies the light from objects behind it. A foreground galaxy cluster enabled Webb to spot the Cosmic Seahorse galaxy, and the image shows the incredible light-bending effects of gravity in the Universe.
The First Photo of an Asteroid Belt Outside the Solar System
The James Webb Space Telescope achieved yet another milestone this year by capturing the first-ever photo of an asteroid belt outside the Solar System.
45,000 Galaxies Sparkle in a Single Webb Image
As part of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey, or JADES, Webb captured an image of the GOODS-South area of the sky and found a staggering 45,000 galaxies, nearly every single one showing signs of star formation.
Answering the Cosmic Questions
“The question mark-shaped object is probably a pair of distant galaxies in the background which are merging,” explained Dr. Christopher T. Britt, an Education and Outreach Scientist at STScI’s Office of Public Outreach. “As they approach and interact, the shape of each galaxy can be distorted, including by ripping out long streamers of stars and gas.”
Webb’s Stunning View of Saturn
Saturn’s rings have never looked so beautiful. Webb captured its first photo of Saturn this year, uncovering details never seen before. Webb took another crack at Saturn this summer, delivering an even better planetary portrait.
Uranus’ Rings and Moons Dazzle
Saturn isn’t the only member of the Solar System getting the Webb portrait treatment. NIRCam also looked at Uranus, showing the beautiful, serene planet, its mysterious rings, and its moons.
Jupiter’s Atmosphere is Wilder than We Thought
Not one to be left out, the giant Jupiter was imaged this year, too. Thanks to Webb’s resolution, scientists discovered a high-speed jet stream in the planet’s atmosphere.
A Cosmic Clash of the Titans
NGC 3256, a “peculiar galaxy,” looks dazzling in Webb’s image. The cosmic collision shows a galactic merger about 120 million light-years away, and the violent explosion triggered significant star formation.
As part of its Feedback in Emerging extragalactic Star clusTers, or FEAST, observations, Webb looked at the M51 galaxy. And, well, it’s incredible. (https://petapixel.com/2023/08/31/photo-of-a-cosmic-whirlpool-offers-new-details-on-star-formation/)
Crab Nebula and M83
As part of a series of investigations, Webb looked at the Crab Nebula and the M83 galaxy, and wow, they look amazing. In PetaPixel‘s full coverage of the images, there are numerous Hubble versus Webb comparisons that show just how far we have com in terms of space telescope imaging technology.
Mysteries in the Heart of Our Galaxy
Sagittarius C is a very dense region in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Thanks to Webb’s new observations, scientists learned about new features of Earth’s home, including discovering key details about star formation.
The Ring Nebula is Superb
The Ring Nebula, which looks like an epic sports stadium, delivered one of Webb’s most amazing subjects of 2023. Thanks to the spatial resolution of NIRCam and MIRI, scientists captured new details of the filament structures of the Ring Nebula, also known as M57, that have never been seen before.
The Most Colorful View of the Universe Ever
We are wrapping up the Webb roundup by showing the power of the James Webb Space Telescope when used alongside other observatories, like the Hubble Space Telescope. By compositing data from each space telescope, scientists this year were able to deliver the most colorful view of the Universe ever.
What will the James Webb Space Telescope discover and see in 2024?