Here's what we learned from the first set of images captured by NASA's newest space observatory and how to translate it into learning opportunities for students.
NASA’s newest space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, has returned its first set of images and spectra of five different targets – from nebulae to exoplanets to galaxy clusters – revealing the universe in ways never before seen. These targets, selected by a team of experts, represent just the start of the telescope's science operations and the beginning of our ability to see the universe in a whole new way.
Read on to learn more about what the space-based observatory’s images can tell us about the cosmos, how they were captured, and how to engage learners in the science and engineering behind the mission.
What JWST Saw
New Details Revealed About the Birth of Stars
Stellar nurseries, young stars, and protostellar jets, which are narrow, ultra-fast streams of gas emanating from baby stars, are all on display in this image of the Carina Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust approximately 7,600 light years away.
Nebulae are massive clouds of gas and dust, some spanning up to hundreds of light-years across. Thanks to its infrared cameras, JWST can peer into these dusty regions of space, revealing incredible details previously unseen by other telescopes.
Within the Carina Nebula, a star-forming region known as NGC 3324 was captured by the Webb telescope in this image. As the edge of this region moves inward toward the gas and dust, it may encounter unstable areas. The pressure changes can cause the gas and dust to collapse, forming a new star in a process called accretion. However, if too much material is pushed away, it may prevent a star from forming.
The Webb telescope’s observations in nebulae like this will help scientists answer some of the unknown questions of astrophysics, like what determines the number of stars in a certain region and why do stars form with certain masses.
Scientists can also learn how star formation affects these clouds. Little is known about the numerous small, or low-mass, stars within nebulae. But by studying the jets revealed in the new image, scientists can understand how these stars are expelling gas and dust out of the cloud, thereby reducing the amount of material available to form new stars. Furthermore, scientists will be able to get a full count of these low-mass stars and account for their impact throughout the nebula.
Signs of Water on a Distant Planet
JWST's observations of exoplanet WASP-96 b, a planet outside our solar system, is not an image but a spectrum of light. Within the spectrum are highlights that indicate the presence of water molecules. The spectrum also shows evidence of clouds and haze, which were thought not to exist in WASP-96 b's atmosphere.
WASP-96 b is an exoplanet made up mostly of gas. About half the mass of Jupiter, but slightly larger, it orbits much closer to its star, completing a revolution every 3.4 days compared with 12 years for Jupiter.
This measurement, known as a transmission spectrum, was collected as WASP-96 b transited, or passed in front of, its host star from the perspective of the telescope. It compares the light that passed through the atmosphere of the exoplanet with the light from the planet's parent star alone. As a result, it is possible to see the amount of light at each wavelength blocked by the planet and absorbed by its atmosphere, telling scientists the size of the planet and the chemicals contained in its atmosphere.
While WASP-96 b’s spectrum had been captured before, the Webb telescope provided the most detailed view of its spectrum in near-infrared, and the improved resolution completely changed our understanding of the exoplanet’s atmosphere. Using this spectrum, scientists will be able to measure the amount of water in the exoplanet's atmosphere, determine how much oxygen and carbon it contains, infer the make-up of the planet, and even how, when, and where it formed.
Star Pair Coming Into Focus
Two distinct stars can be seen in this image of the center of the Southern Ring Nebula – a pairing that was believed to exist but was not visible in previous images.
The star pair came into view thanks to the space telescope's MIRI instrument, which is designed to capture wavelengths of light in the mid-infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. MIRI’s ability to see in the mid-infrared revealed that the older of the two stars is surrounded by dust. Seeing this dust clearly is what makes the second star visible in the image. While the brighter star is in an earlier stage of its life, it will likely form its own planetary nebula in the future.
About 2,500 light-years away from Earth, the Southern Ring is a planetary nebula – a shell of gas and dust shed from a dying white dwarf star at its center. Its gases stretch out for nearly half a light-year and are speeding away from the star at approximately nine miles per second!
The images from JWST reveal that starlight streams out of the nebula in fine lines, the result of holes in the surrounding gas and dust cloud. The types and locations of different molecules within the cloud, gleaned from the captured spectra, will help to fine tune our understanding of the structure, composition, and history of this nebula, and with future observations, other nebulae.
How Galaxies Interact
The Webb telescope's capabilities bring new eyes to a cluster of galaxies first discovered in 1877 and known as Stephan’s Quintet. On display in this sharp new image are regions of new star birth containing millions of young stars as well as tails of gas, dust, and stars being ripped from galaxies as a result of gravitational forces between the galaxies.
Stephan’s Quintet is a dense cluster of galaxies located 290 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. Four of the five galaxies within the quintet are locked in orbits that repeatedly bring them close to one another. The fifth (leftmost) galaxy is seven times closer to Earth than the others. But its location within the line of sight of the distant four makes it appear to be grouped with them. What looks like speckles surrounding the nearby galaxy and could be mistaken for digital noise is actually individual stars from that galaxy.
It may seem distant in pure numbers, but Stephan's Quintet is relatively close compared to galaxies that are billions of light-years away. Its proximity gives astronomers a great view of the interactions that occur between galaxies that are near to each other.
The detail exposed will allow scientists to understand the interactions occurring in much more distant – and harder to observe – galaxies. Close inspections of galactic nuclei captured in mid-infrared by the telescope's MIRI instrument revealed hot gas being stripped of its electrons by winds and radiation from a supermassive black hole at the center of one galaxy. The new detail helped scientists determine that iron, argon, neon, sulfur and oxygen, as well as silicate dust are contained in these gases.
Meanwhile, the telescope's NIRSpec instrument – which can capture up to 100 spectra at a time – was able to identify atomic and molecular hydrogen as well as iron ions in the gases around the black hole. These observations will provide a greater understanding about the rate at which supermassive black holes feed and grow.
Thousands of Galaxies in a Grain of Sand
This image contains thousands of galaxies as well as the faintest objects yet observed in the infrared. Known as a deep field image, it was made by pointing the telescope at the target for an extended period of time, allowing the detectors to collect as much of the faint, distant light as possible. JWST captured this deep field image in just 12.5 hours, while the Hubble Space Telescope spent two weeks capturing its deepest images. (Note that Hubble also observed this galaxy cluster, but not as a deep field image.)
Hold a single grain of sand at arm's length and you could cover the entire area of space captured by this image. Keen observers will notice what appear as warped or stretched galaxies. Those are the result of gravitational lensing, a phenomenon in which the gravity of the galaxy cluster centered in the foreground bends the light from background galaxies magnifying and distorting their light. Taking advantage of this phenomenon allows for viewing of extremely distant and very faint galaxies.
The galaxy cluster shown in the image is known as SMACS 0723 and it appears as it did 4.6 billion years ago – the length of time it took for its light to reach the telescope. Light from the oldest-known galaxy in the image had been traveling for 13.1 billion years before it reached JWST.
The MIRI instrument’s ability to detect longer infrared wavelengths provides additional information in the image about the make-up of those galaxies. Mid-infrared light highlights dust, an important star-forming ingredient. In this image, red objects contain thick dust layers, while blue galaxies contain stars but not much dust. Green objects contain dust filled with hydrocarbons and other compounds. With these data, astronomers will be able to better understand the formation and growth of galaxies.
As impressive as this image is, the JWST team has plans to capture more deep field images using even longer exposure times. Keep up to date with the latest images and spectra from JWST throughout the school year at the Webb Space Telescope Resource Gallery.
How They Did It
The Webb telescope's ability to detect these objects in such great detail is enabled by its size, the way it observes the universe, and the unique technologies aboard. We went into more detail about how JWST works in a previous Teachable Moment, but below you’ll find a review of some of the important ways JWST was uniquely designed to capture these groundbreaking images.
Observing the Infrared
The Webb telescope was built with instruments like NIRSpec and MIRI that are sensitive to light in the near- and mid-infrared wavelengths to detect some of the most distant objects in space.
As light from distant objects travels to Earth, the universe expands, something it’s been doing since the Big Bang. The waves that make up the light get stretched as the universe expands. Visible lightwaves from distant objects that you would be able to see with your eyes get stretched out so far that the longer wavelengths shift from visible light into infrared. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as redshift – and the farther away an object is, the more redshift it undergoes.
The light from some of these distant objects has traveled so far that it is incredibly dim. To see such dim light, the Webb telescope was built to be extremely sensitive. On the Webb telescope, 18 hexagonal mirrors combine to form a massive primary mirror that is 21 feet (6.5 meters) across – six times the surface area of Hubble.
To detect faint infrared light, the instruments inside the telescope have to be kept very cold, otherwise those infrared signals could get lost in the heat of the telescope. The spacecraft’s orbit and tennis-court-size sunshield keep light and heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon from warming up its sensitive instruments. And the MIRI instrument, which needs to be even colder to capture mid-infrared wavelengths, is equipped with a special cryocooler.
The unique design and innovative techniques used by the James Webb Space Telescope are what made the first images possible. As the mission continues, more targets will be observed, more discoveries will be made, and more of our universe will unfold before our eyes.
“It’s not every day you can say you contributed to something that inspires the world in a positive way, but I believe that’s what JWST is doing for everyone of all ages,” said JPL engineer Analyn Schneider, who is the project manager for the telescope's MIRI instrument. “The telescope will help us learn more about our galaxy and the rest of the universe, and as a bonus we get these magnificent images. Learning is a big part of being in science and engineering and that’s what makes it interesting and challenging.”
Bring the excitement of these far-off observations closer to home by using the following resources in your classroom or for remote instruction. Plus explore more related resources below including projects for students, galleries, and interactives.
The Science of Color
Quickly and easily model how colors reflect, absorb, and interact with each other in the classroom or online using your computer’s camera.
Time < 30 mins
Calculating Solar Power in Space
Students explore practical applications of exponents and division to investigate what it takes for NASA spacecraft to travel deep into the solar system using only solar power.
Time 30-60 mins
Using Light to Study Planets
Students build a spectrometer using basic materials as a model for how NASA uses spectroscopy to determine the nature of elements found on Earth and other planets.
Time > 2 hrs
Collecting Light: Inverse Square Law Demo
In this activity, students learn how light and energy are spread throughout space. The rate of change can be expressed mathematically, demonstrating why spacecraft like NASA’s Juno need so many solar panels.
Time < 30 mins
Math of the Expanding Universe
Students will learn about the expanding universe and the redshift of lightwaves, then perform their own calculations with a distant supernova.
Time 30-60 mins
Build a Light Detector Inspired by Space Communications
In this advanced programming activity, students will construct a light-wavelength detector to model future technology for communicating with spacecraft.
Time > 2 hrs
James Webb Space Telescope STEM Toolkit
Find a collection of resources, activities, videos, and more for your students to learn about NASA’s newest space observatory.
10 Things We Can Learn from Webb's First Images
Take a closer look at how images from NASA's most powerful space telescope yet are helping to answer some of astronomers' most burning questions.
Time < 30 mins
Planet Pinpointer: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
In this illustrated math problem, students use pi to calculate the distance across a disk of debris around the star Beta Pictoris.
Time < 30 mins
- Teachable Moments
How Scientists Captured the First Image of a Black Hole
Find out how scientists created a virtual telescope as large as Earth itself to capture the first image of a black hole's silhouette.
- Expert Talk
Teaching Space With NASA – Revealing the Universe With Infrared
In this educational talk, NASA experts discuss how we use non-visible light to explore the universe.
Black Holes: By the Numbers
What are black holes and how do they form? Explore more in this slideshow for students.
Time < 30 mins
- Article for Kids: What is a Transit?
- Article for Kids: What is a Light Year?
- Article for Kids: What is a Nebula?
- Article for Kids: What is a Black Hole?
- Article for Kids: What is a Galaxy?
- Article for Kids: Explore the Electromagnetic Spectrum
- Article for Kids: How Old are Galaxies?
- Website: James Webb Space Telescope
- Image Gallery: James Webb Space Telescope Images
- Website: NASA Exoplanets
- Interactive: Eyes on Exoplanets
- Facts & Figures: Exoplanet Catalog
- Downloads: James Webb Space Telescope Poster
- Downloads: Exoplanet Travel Bureau Posters
- Webb Telescope Videos
- Webb Telescope Paper Model
NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.