One of those observations was a detailed study of the atmosphere of a gas giant planet 1,000 light-years from Earth called WASP-96 b. By observing the dimming in light as the planet passed in front of its host star, JWST was able to probe this world’s atmosphere, a technique it will use to study many other planets in the future.
“You see bulges and displacements that indicate the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere,” said Knicole Colón, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and deputy scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope’s exoplanet science project, at a NASA event that revealed observations.
“These are probably the most difficult observations that JWST will make,” says Don Pollacco, an astronomer at the University of Warwick in the UK. JWST is expected to have an unparalleled ability to search for methane and other potential signs of life in the atmospheres of planets similar in size to ours.
Also featured today is JWST’s view of a dying star shedding its outer layers, a so-called planetary nebula known as the South Ring Nebula located some 2,500 light-years from Earth. The view is far more detailed than the picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1998 and reveals for the first time two stars known to be at the heart of the nebula.
The second image (shown at the top of this story) reveals a remarkable view of the Stephan Quintet, a group of five galaxies about 300 million light-years from Earth. Four of these galaxies are interacting, transferring gas and dust between them. JWST’s view of galaxies in infrared light shows how these interactions drive star formation inside galaxies like never before. The power of JWST’s optics is such that individual stars can be seen even within galaxies. “It’s remarkable,” said Mark McCaughrean, senior adviser for science and research at the European Space Agency. “We are ready to increase this telescope to 11.”
The final image offered was a fresh look at the Carina Nebula, a region of active star formation nearly 8,000 light-years from Earth. The magnificent vista revealed by JWST reveals hundreds of new stars never seen before, and even structures in the nebula’s dust and gas that cannot yet be explained, said Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard and deputy project scientist for JWST.
“We can see a lot more detail,” thanks to JWST, Straughn says. “It really reveals what’s going on here.”
These images are just a tantalizing taste of what’s to come from JWST. The telescope has now begun its first year of planned scientific observations. Countless more stunning vistas and copious amounts of invaluable data will come our way.
“It’s a new window into the history of our universe,” President Biden said yesterday. “We see the first light that will shine through that window.”