Mayank Chhaya –
When light left the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 4.6 billion years ago to be just captured by NASA’s James Webb space observatory, our solar system was not even formed. It was still about 500 million years into the future.
That light, and therefore the images it carries, is now reaching us and giving us a breathtaking view as photographed by the $10-billion-plus James Webb telescope. The idea that our solar system was nowhere on the scene when these images began spreading across the universe is going to be only a sideshow as the telescope begins to reveal the universe as it was almost close to its inception some 13.7 billion years ago.
The SMACS 0723 image was released by President Joe Biden at a short ceremony at the White House today in what was aimed at underlining his passionate support to science generally and space science particularly.
NASA said in its announcement, “Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared – have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.
This deep field, taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours – achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks.
The image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it. Webb’s NIRCam has brought those distant galaxies into sharp focus – they have tiny, faint structures that have never been seen before, including star clusters and diffuse features. Researchers will soon begin to learn more about the galaxies’ masses, ages, histories, and compositions, as Webb seeks the earliest galaxies in the universe.”
There are expectations that the James Webb will produce a surfeit of images that will offer an unprecedented look into the farthest corners of the universe and in the process reveal some of its most mystifying phenomena.
NASA said the telescope is now fully ready for science. As a first step, it is scheduled to release more images on Tuesday morning. It will reveal images from the following corners of the universe:
Carina Nebula: The Carina Nebula is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, located approximately 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. Nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars form. The Carina Nebula is home to many massive stars, several times larger than the Sun.
WASP-96 b (spectrum): WASP-96 b is a giant planet outside our solar system, composed mainly of gas. The planet, located nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, orbits its star every 3.4 days. It has about half the mass of Jupiter, and its discovery was announced in 2014.
Southern Ring Nebula: The Southern Ring, or “Eight-Burst” nebula, is a planetary nebula – an expanding cloud of gas, surrounding a dying star. It is nearly half a light-year in diameter and is located approximately 2,000 light years away from Earth.
Stephan’s Quintet: About 290 million light-years away, Stephan’s Quintet is located in the constellation Pegasus. It is notable for being the first compact galaxy group ever discovered in 1877. Four of the five galaxies within the quintet are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.
SMACS 0723: Massive foreground galaxy clusters magnify and distort the light of objects behind them, permitting a deep field view into both the extremely distant and intrinsically faint galaxy populations.