Nasa has released a new image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) today to celebrate the anniversary of its first year in operation.
The picture features the nearest star-forming region to us, approximately 390 light years away.
The satellite is a joint effort with Nasa, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency. It is designed to explore every phase of cosmic history, from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe.
The $10bn telescope was finished years late at a cost far higher than planned, but was finally launched on Christmas Day 2021 with a minimum ten-year plan to study the cosmos.
“In just one year, the James Webb Space Telescope has transformed humanity’s view of the cosmos, peering into dust clouds and seeing light from faraway corners of the universe for the very first time. Every new image is a new discovery, empowering scientists around the globe to ask and answer questions they once could never dream of,” said Nasa administrator Bill Nelson.
“Thousands of engineers, scientists, and leaders poured their life’s passion into this mission, and their efforts will continue to improve our understanding of the origins of the universe – and our place in it,” he added.
Webb’s image (pictured in full, below) shows a region containing approximately 50 young stars, all of them similar in mass to the Sun or smaller.
The darkest areas are the densest, where thick dust cocoons still-forming protostars. Huge bipolar jets of molecular hydrogen, represented in red, dominate the image, appearing horizontally across the upper third and vertically on the right.
These occur when a star first bursts through its natal envelope of cosmic dust, shooting out a pair of opposing jets into space. In contrast, the star S1 has carved out a glowing cave of dust in the lower half of the image. It is the only star in the image that is significantly more massive than the Sun.
“On its first anniversary, the James Webb Space Telescope has already delivered upon its promise to unfold the universe, gifting humanity with a breathtaking treasure trove of images and science that will last for decades,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator of Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate.
“An engineering marvel built by the world’s leading scientists and engineers, Webb has given us a more intricate understanding of galaxies, stars, and the atmospheres of planets outside of our solar system than ever before, laying the groundwork for Nasa to lead the world in a new era of scientific discovery and the search for habitable worlds.”
The Nasa team said they were excited about Webb’s ability to analyse the spectrum of radio signals and light in unparalleled detail.
Webb’s spectra have already confirmed the distances of some of the farthest galaxies ever observed, and have discovered the earliest, most distant supermassive black holes. They have identified the compositions of planet atmospheres (or lack thereof) with more detail than ever before, and have narrowed down what kinds of atmospheres may exist on rocky exoplanets for the first time.
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