For now, perhaps, we should get used to unreal images of space taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. But a year after NASA released the first images from the space observatory, the space agency has dropped yet another amazing moment of our universe.
Wednesday’s image was Rho Ophiuchi, the nearest nursery of child stars in our cosmic backyard. Located just 390 light years away from Earth, this cloud complex is packed with stellar goodness.
About 50 stars with masses comparable to our sun are showered with white: some fully formed and shining brightly, others still hidden behind dark, dense regions of interstellar dust. (Zoom closer and you’ll even find a faint galaxy or two.)
Near the center of the image is a mature star called S1, its starlight illuminating the bright yellow nebula around it. At the top right, red jets of molecular hydrogen flow, material that is ejected on both sides of the formation of protostars. Black shadows near these regions are accretion disks of swirling gas and dust – some of which could be in the process of creating planetary systems.
The respect that the image inspires is comparable to how researchers feel about the Webb’s first year of science.
“As an astronomer who lives and breathes this mission, I have to work hard to keep up — there are so many discoveries,” said Jane Rigby, the senior project scientist for the telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She finds it fitting that the usual gift for one-year anniversaries is paper, because that’s exactly what researchers using the telescope have been producing for the past year: scientific papers.
The observatory launched Christmas 2021, and scientists spent the next six months preparing the telescope for action: unfolding its sunshade and the tile-like array of golden mirrors, then conducting tests of the four instruments used to observe the cosmos. When it was ready, the Webb began its journey to peer into the depths of the universe.
The telescope’s agenda has been full ever since. It has abundantly monitored asteroids, quasars, exoplanets and other cosmic phenomena. For Dr. Rigby, one of the most gratifying achievements of this past year is the way the mission has fulfilled its promise to reveal the earliest moments of cosmic time.
“That was the lift: We’re going to show you the baby pictures of the universe,” she said.
Indeed it has. Before JWST, astronomers knew of only a small handful of candidate galaxies that existed in the first billion years after the Big Bang. In the past year, hundreds of them – bigger and brighter than expected, packed with forming stars swirling around supermassive black holes – have been confirmed.
“The data from the telescope is better than we promised,” Dr. Rigby said. “It’s overdone in almost every way.”
Already, the telescope’s schedule for next year is set, with about 5,000 hours of prime observing time for a set of projects related to galaxy formation, stellar chemistry, the behavior of black holes, the large-scale structure of our universe and more. Many of these projects – more ambitious than last year, now that scientists know what the telescope can do – are dedicated to following up on Webb’s own discoveries.
Although the telescope is operated by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, observers from around the globe have been selected to use it. “This is the telescope for humanity, and we want the best ideas from around the world,” Dr. Rigby said. “That’s how we do things.”