Astronomers have now seen just how powerful the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could be for revealing the chemical complexity of our universe. NASA and its partners—the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Space Telescope Science Institute—released five images on July 12 that show scenes across the universe, including the birth of stars, black holes, and tightly clustered galaxies. The data came from a suite of onboard instruments designed to capture infrared wavelengths of light from the earliest moments of the universe.
The JWST has already outperformed the expectations of its engineers by snapping an image of the whirling galaxies of the cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The gravity and dark matter from this galaxy cluster help to magnify and distort even more ancient galaxies that formed less than a billion years after the Big Bang. “And we’re seeing the elements of oxygen and hydrogen, as well as neon,” Jane Rigby, a JWST project scientist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said during a press conference at which the images were unveiled. “This is how the oxygen in our bodies was made in stars in galaxies, and we’re seeing that process get started.”
Knicole Colón, a JWST exoplanet project scientist with NASA Goddard, also shared data showing the chemical fingerprint of water vapor in the atmosphere of a hot, gaseous exoplanet about half the mass of Jupiter called WASP-96 b. The data suggest that this vapor forms steamy clouds and haze, which had not been observable with the ground-based telescopes that initially identified water on this exoplanet. Though astrobiologists don’t expect WASP-96 b to host life, the techniques used to analyze its atmosphere are crucial for finding potentially habitable exoplanets with liquid water.
The analysis of WASP-96 b’s water was among the most exciting revelations for Brett McGuire, an astrochemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The telescope is “probing the chemical composition of the atmosphere of another planet in another solar system,” he said. JWST will give scientists on Earth an unprecedented view into the atmospheric chemistry of other worlds. “It’s just going to be incredible.”
McGuire is especially excited to see results from the telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) that will detect the spectroscopic signatures of atoms and molecules across large swaths of space. With this instrument, scientists performed a spectral analysis of a supermassive black hole within a group of five galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet. MIRI detected differences in the chemical composition of different regions around the black hole, showing that it is surrounded by a cloud of fine silicate that is distinct from the ionized gases flowing away from it. In the coming year, MIRI will be used to study the chemical complexity of interstellar ice clouds where many carbon-based molecules are synthesized.
This photo release marks the grand opening of JWST to science, NASA officials said. Data from these experiments will be collected in a publicly accessible archive that will spur new insights into our universe for decades to come. “The amazing thing about Webb is the speed at which we can churn out discoveries,” Rigby says. “We’re going to be doing discoveries like this every week.”