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Dying stars, clouds on exoplanets: What the James Webb Space Telescope reveals

The James Webb Space Telescope, the largest, most powerful observatory ever put into space, serves as a "time machine" that takes us back to the beginnings of the universe. Its discoveries include the distinct signature of water vapor in an exoplanet's atmosphere.
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Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer on
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In these images of the Southern Ring planetary nebula, the Webb telescope shows a dying star cloaked by dust and layers of light.

Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The formation and death of stars, an exoplanet light years away from Earth and galaxy clusters that exist farther than humans have ever looked before -- these are some of the sights that humanity laid eyes on for the first time on Tuesday, as NASA unveiled new images from the James Webb Space Telescope

Among the images revealed was the spectrum of an exoplanet, the giant gas planet WASP 96-b, which orbits a star 1,150 light-years away. The Webb telescope captured the distinct signature of water vapor in the exoplanet's atmosphere, as well as evidence of clouds and haze. 

"Every image is a new discovery, and each will give humanity a view of the universe that we've never seen before," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said on Tuesday ahead of the reveal, speaking from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Signs of water

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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has captured the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star.

Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The image of WASP 96-b is an indirect image -- an observation of the planet in transit. As the planet passes in front of a star, starlight filters through atmosphere. That can be broken down into wavelengths of light, which reveal information about the contents of the atmosphere. This is how scientists observed the telltale signature of water vapor, along with evidence for clouds and haze.

This isn't the first time scientists have detected water in an exoplanet's atmosphere -- the Hubble Space Telescope did so in 2013. However, Webb's immediate and more detailed observation significantly advances our understanding of potentially habitable planets beyond Earth.

SEE: NASA's tiny satellite is exploring a new Moon orbit

WASP-96 b is one of the more than 5,000 planets scientists have found beyond our solar system. The planet is about the size of Jupiter and half the mass. It's extremely hot, with a temperature greater than 1000°F, and nothing like our solar system's planets.

Looking deep into space

Because the JWST is an infrared telescope, it can penetrate through dust clouds and see light from faraway corners of the universe. These first images look back 13 billion years, and ultimately the JWST will look back as far as 13.5 billion years -- an incredible distance, given that scientists have determined the universe is 13.8 billion years old.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris joined Nelson on Monday evening to unveil the very first image from Webb -- the deepest infrared image of the universe ever taken. Biden said the telescope and its mission "symbolizes the relentless spirit of American ingenuity."

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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb's First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail.

Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The image first revealed by the president, shown above, is known as Webb's First Deep Field. It's an image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, and it is overflowing with detail. It is teeming with galaxies, revealing them as they appeared around the time the sun and the Earth formed. The images are a glimpse back in time, since the speed of light is only so fast. 

Thanks to the spectra obtained by Webb's instruments, scientists can determine what these galaxies are made of. There are elements of oxygen and hydrogen, as well as neon. 

"This is how the oxygen in our bodies was made, in stars and galaxies, and we're seeing that process get started," Webb operations scientist Jane Rigby said.

The creation of stars

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In an enormous new image, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope reveals never-before-seen details of galaxy group "Stephan's Quintet."

Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Meanwhile, the new image of Stephan's Quintet -- a visual grouping of five galaxies -- sheds new light on the creation of stars. An image of Stephan's Quintet has been seen before. In fact, the grouping of galaxies is best known for being featured in the holiday classic film, "It's a Wonderful Life." This new image, however, provides new insights into the evolution of the early universe.

The new image is enormous -- it contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. It shows sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and sweeping tails of gas and dust. It captures huge shock waves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, smashes through the cluster. Stephan's Quintet is about 300 million light years from Earth.

COSMIC CLIFFS

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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope reveals emerging stellar nurseries and individual stars in the Carina Nebula that were previously obscured.

Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Webb also provided a remarkable image of a young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Called the Cosmic Cliffs, the image shows previously invisible areas of star birth.

This image shows the edge of the giant, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324. The tallest "peaks" in this image are about seven light-years high. Located roughly 7,600 light-years away, NGC 3324 was imaged by Webb's Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument.

The death of stars

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In these images of the Southern Ring planetary nebula, the Webb telescope shows a dying star cloaked by dust and layers of light.

Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Along with the creation of stars, Webb is also helping us learn more about the death of stars. Two cameras aboard Webb captured the planetary nebula NGC 3132 -- known informally as the Southern Ring Nebula. It is approximately 2,500 light-years away.

The JWST will help scientists better understand the molecules present in planetary nebulae -- the clouds of gas and dust expelled by dying stars. 

SEE: NASA delays its Psyche asteroid mission

This image shows two stars locked in a tight orbit. The stars -- and their layers of light -- are prominent in the image from Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the left, while the image from Webb's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the right shows for the first time that the second star is surrounded by dust.

While the images released this week are remarkable, they only scratch the surface of what Webb will be able to reveal. While the Webb mission is supposed to last 10 years, the JWST has enough excess fuel capability to last for 20 years.

Getting this far already took tremendous feats of engineering. The JWST launched in December from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. After traveling one million miles away from Earth, the JWST unfurled its giant sunshield. It deployed and perfectly aligned its gold-coated mirrors and cooled its instruments to their near-absolute zero operating temperatures. 

The JWST mission is a collaborative effort that includes NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, as well as private partners. 

The mission "gives a new meaning to as far as the eye can see," Congressman Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday. "The vision of the world is greater today than it was yesterday."

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