One year after kicking off operations, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has already revolutionized our view of the universe. And to celebrate JWST's first birthday, scientists have released one of the telescope's most gorgeous images yet.
The new picture is a close-up of Rho Ophiuchi, a star-forming region roughly 390 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus. This dense cloud complex consists of two major regions thick with dust and gas, each of which acts as a star factory.
In the image, JWST captured about 50 young stars shortly after their birth. Each is similar in size to the sun, and a few have the telltale shadows of protoplanetary disks that will one day condense into rocky planets.
JWST is equipped with four main instruments: the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), and the Fine Guidance Sensor/Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS). These powerful instruments enable the telescope to peer deep into outer space and pick up the traces of light left over from the universe's first stars. They've also allowed JWST to analyze the atmospheric composition of faraway exoplanets, detect the oldest organic molecules and even piece together the structure of the cosmic web that connects galaxies.
"With a year of science under our belts, we know exactly how powerful this telescope is, and have delivered a year of spectacular data and discoveries," Jane Rigby, Webb senior project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.
But even with all the data it's collected in the past year, JWST is far from finished. The mission is scheduled to run for at least another decade, and scientists are eagerly planning the telescope's next moves. "We've selected an ambitious set of observations for year two," Rigby said. "Webb's science mission is just getting started."
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Joanna Thompson is a science journalist and runner based in New York. She holds a B.S. in Zoology and a B.A. in Creative Writing from North Carolina State University, as well as a Master's in Science Journalism from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. Find more of her work in Scientific American, The Daily Beast, Atlas Obscura or Audubon Magazine.
The JWST is the closest thing we have to a time machine. The image it captured of NGC 3132, approximately 2500 LY away, captured the light that passed through the Southern Ring Nebula around the time when the Buddha walked around in what we know as India today, and the Hebrews were just about getting ready to abandon the civilized coziness of Babylon. If there would be a way to position an instrument far enough away from Earth putting it 2500 LY into the red shift in an instant, we theoretically could observe human history of the past 2500 years like a reality TV show. In other words, the light that passes Earth's surface from any direction carries images of its history with it. Of course, to assemble coherent images of past events would require a technology that doesn't exist at this time. But, if we can imagine that it could exist some day, it probably will, like a self fulfilling prophecy. Jules Verne imagined machines that came to exist within 100 years. Creating an instrument that can record our own past and position it correctly may take a tad longer.Reply