NASA releases first images from Webb telescope

By Elise Hammond, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 2142 GMT (0542 HKT) July 12, 2022
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11:34 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

"Webb represents the best of NASA," the space agency's administrator says

The James Webb Space Telescope "represents the best of NASA," said Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, after the images from the telescope were released.

"It maintains our ability to propel us forward for science, for risk-taking, for inspiration," he said Tuesday. "We don't want to ever stop exploring the heavens or stop daring to take another step forward for humanity."

He quoted astronomer Carl Sagan, saying, "'Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.'"

"I think those words are becoming reality," Nelson added.

11:33 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

Scientists have to extract colors and light from Webb's images so they're visible to the human eye

Scientists put in a lot of work into thinking about how images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope will show light that the human eye cannot see.

They also put colors in the images so more information can be extracted.

A committee was created to come up with a long list of targets to take the best images, according to Klaus Pontoppidan, a Webb project scientist.

Targets have to be selected because Webb can't see the whole sky at any given time to "avoid the mirror seeing direct sunlight" so it stays cold.

It takes a trained eye to take the exquisite data and pull out the beauty and the science potential.

"We're basically translating light that we can't see into light that we can see by applying color, like red, green and blue to different filters that we have from Webb," said Joe DePasquale, a senior science visuals developer. "The reason we want to color the images is that there's actually more information that you can get if you see it in color."

"So it's a matter of picking and choosing colors that enhance the details and the structure in the image itself," said Alyssa Pagan, science visual developer.

11:24 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

New image from Webb telescope shows where stars are born

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.
This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)

Located 7,600 light-years away, the Carina Nebula is a stellar nursery, where stars are born. It is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky and home to many stars much more massive than our sun.

The “Cosmic Cliffs” are seen in the stunning new image that reveals previously hidden baby stars, which provides "a rare peek into stars in their earliest, rapid stages of formation," according to NASA.

11:31 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

Stephan's Quintet gives scientists a look at how galaxies interact

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Today, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, in a new light. This enormous mosaic is Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. The information from Webb provides new insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe.
Today, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, in a new light. This enormous mosaic is Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. The information from Webb provides new insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)

The space telescope's view of Stephan's Quintet reveals the way galaxies interact with one another and how their interactions might shape galactic evolution.

This compact galaxy group, first discovered in 1787, is located 290 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. Four of the five galaxies in the group "are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters," according to a NASA statement.

"Webb's mosaic contains more than 150 million pixels and is constructed from about 1,000 image files," according to NASA.

Mark McCaughrean, the senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency, said the image shows the view from our own Milky Way to far-away galaxies — even showing the creation of new stars.

When the near-infared view is stripped away from the image, mostly gas and dust is seen. But it revealed an active black hole, according to ESA astronomer Giovanna Giardino.

“We cannot see the black hole itself, but we see the material swirling around being swallowed,” Giardino said. 

Gas gets heated to extremely high temperatures as it folds and becomes very bright, “40 billion times the luminosity of our sun’s,” she explained.

11:07 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

Image of Southern Ring Nebula captures cloud of gas around a dying star

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

This side-by-side comparison shows observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light, at left, and mid-infrared light, at right, from NASA’s Webb Telescope.
This side-by-side comparison shows observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light, at left, and mid-infrared light, at right, from NASA’s Webb Telescope. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)

The Southern Ring Nebula, also called the "Eight-Burst," is 2,000 light-years away from Earth. This large planetary nebula includes an expanding cloud of gas around a dying star.

"The new details from Webb will transform our understanding of how stars evolve and influence their environments," according to NASA.

NASA is expected to release two more photos from the Webb telescope today.

11:05 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

NASA releases Webb's first spectrum of exoplanet

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

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. The observation, which reveals the presence of specific gas molecules based on tiny decreases in the brightness of precise colors of light, is the most detailed of its kind to date, demonstrating Webb’s unprecedented ability to analyze atmospheres hundreds of light-years away.
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. The observation, which reveals the presence of specific gas molecules based on tiny decreases in the brightness of precise colors of light, is the most detailed of its kind to date, demonstrating Webb’s unprecedented ability to analyze atmospheres hundreds of light-years away. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)

Webb's study of the giant gas planet WASP-96b is the most detailed spectrum of an exoplanet to date. The spectrum includes different wavelengths of light that can reveal new information about the planet.

Discovered in 2014, WASP-96b is located 1,150 light-years from Earth. It has half the mass of Jupiter and completes an orbit around its star every 3.4 days.

Webb's spectrum includes "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," according to NASA.

The spectrum looks like “a bunch of bumps and wiggles,” which Knicole Colon, a NASA astrophysicist, said are “full of information.” 

“You’re actually seeing bumps and wiggles that indicate the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere of this exoplanet,” she explained. 

10:42 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

NASA released the 1st Webb Telescope image yesterday — and more are coming today

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

The first image from the James Webb telescope, released on Monday, July 11.
The first image from the James Webb telescope, released on Monday, July 11. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)

NASA on Monday released the first image from the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA called the image "the deepest & sharpest infrared image of the early universe ever taken."  

The image depicts a massive group of galaxy clusters that act as a magnifying glass for the objects behind them. Called gravitational lensing, this will create Webb's first deep field view of incredibly old and distant, faint galaxies.

The rest of the images will be released today. The series of pictures as a whole is likely to include a new look at five cosmic targets.

10:38 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

Scientists hope Webb will be the first step in identifying signs of life in space

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Could there be life in space? Scientists hope the James Webb Space Telescope will help them get closer to the answer.

Astronomers have yet to find a solar system quite like ours. And of the thousands of known exoplanets, none quite match up with the planets in our cosmic backyard. But scientists have only just begun to scratch the surface of these planets outside the solar system. The next step is looking inside of them.

Webb will peer into the very atmospheres of exoplanets, some of which are potentially habitable. Since the first exoplanets were discovered in the 1990s, many have wondered if we might find another Earth out there, a place called Planet B.

So far, the study of these bodies hasn't revealed another Earth, and it's unlikely that even with technology like the Webb, there won't be "a true Earth analog" out there, said Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Signs of life: The Webb telescope will look inside the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting much smaller stars than our sun. These planets are connected with an intriguing idea: What if life happens differently outside of Earth? And it's something that the successors of this telescope could investigate in the decades to come.

In fact, the task of identifying signs of life on other planets is already slated for future telescopes, like the one outlined in the recently released Astro2020 decadal survey that will look at 25 potentially habitable exoplanets.

"I kind of really want us to be able to find life on something that looks not a lot like Earth," said Nikole Lewis, astrophysicist and an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University.

Life, as we understand it, needs energy, liquid and the right temperature, she said. What happens when a potential sign of life is detected? Finding the sign is fantastic — and figuring out the next step is crucial, said Sara Seager, an astrophysicist, planetary scientist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

If it's determined that there was no other way a potential sign of life could be created, collaboration will be a key aspect, Lewis said. Engaging with chemists, biologists and people of different disciplines outside of astronomy and planetary science can determine the path forward.

"My hope is that we'll be careful, and that we will engage with all of the relevant experts to try to understand if this is in fact, a signature that could only mean that life is on this planet, and then hopefully announced such a thing to the public," Lewis said.

Jill Tarter, astronomer and former director of the Center for SETI Research, believes that the answer to finding life may rely on technosignatures, rather than biosignatures, because the evidence of past or present technology is "potentially a lot less ambiguous."

Biosignatures could be gases or molecules that show signs of life. Technosignatures are signals that could be created by intelligent life.

Read further about the search for life in space here.

Watch more:

10:34 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

The Webb telescope was built to look at the structure of the universe itself. Here's what to know about it.

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

The James Webb telescope on March 5, 2020.
The James Webb telescope on March 5, 2020. (Chris Gunn/NASA)

In addition to investigating the wealth of planets outside of our solar system, the James Webb Space Telescope is peering back to some of the earliest galaxies that formed after the Big Bang and the very structure of the universe itself.

Launched in December, the Webb is allowing researchers to get four times closer to the Big Bang than the Hubble Space Telescope, according to Marcia Rieke, a regents professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory and principal investigator for the Near Infrared Camera on the Webb telescope.

Hubble observed the universe 450 million years after the Big Bang.

Each space telescope builds on the knowledge gained from the previous one. In the case of Webb, its mirror is nearly 60 times larger than previous space telescopes, including the retired Spitzer Space Telescope. The observatory also improves on the sensitivity and resolution of the Hubble.

Collecting infrared observations from space prevents interference created by the heat from our planet and its atmosphere. These observations could confirm or entirely upend predictions and ideas that scientists have about the origin of the universe and how it evolved.

Here are some other things to know about the Webb telescope:

  • A massive mirror: The telescope comes equipped with a mirror that can extend 21 feet and 4 inches (6.5 meters) — a massive length that will allow the mirror to collect more light from the objects it observes once the telescope is in space. The more light the mirror can collect, the more details the telescope can observe. The mirror includes 18 hexagonal gold-coated segments, each 4.3 feet (1.32 meters) in diameter. It's the largest mirror NASA has ever built, the agency said
  • Super sunshield: The spacecraft includes a five-layer sunshield that unfurled to reach the size of a tennis court. It will protect Webb's giant mirror and instruments from the sun's heat because they need to be kept at a very frigid negative 370 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 188 degrees Celsius) to operate. Scientists say this allows it to look at things that were out of reach before.
  • Key wavelengths: Key questions about the universe can be answered when scientists have access to data from different wavelengths of light — something scientists really started looking at in the last 70 years. Before that, "all astronomy was done in optical (visible light) and looking at the universe in optical is like going to the symphony concert and only listening to one note. Now, we've got the whole symphony," said George Rieke, a regents professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory who worked on Webb as the science team lead for the telescope's Mid-Infrared Instrument.