NASA’s Webb Space Telescope reveals a bright scene invisible to Hubble

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope reveals a bright scene invisible to Hubble

When the James Webb Space Telescope launched late last year, astronomers awarded him an infinite number of missions. And I say infinite because the final goal of this marvel of engineering is not only to answer all the questions we have about the universe. It is to answer questions that no mortal human would have thought to ask.

But before we jump to that mind-blowing end goal, our shiny new lens is strutting carefully through the tasks we gave it, one of which is to cut through veils of gas and cosmic dust and reveal secret stellar escapes within. Things that standard optical telescopes, like Hubble, can’t always see.

Behold, Tuesday the JWST decoded a bright scene behind one of the dark curtains of space, a dusty canopy enveloping a pair of merged galaxies some 270 million light-years away from Earth.

The JWST caught a glimpse of a bright, glowing cosmic scene.

ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, L. Armus, A. Evans

what am i looking at

We have two kingdoms, called IC 1623 A and B, attached aa collision course through space and time. They are located in the constellation Cetus and have long been of interest to scientists for a few reasons.

Perhaps most surprisingly, they could be in the process of forming a supermassive black hole, a gigantic void with enough gravitational force to warp the fabric of our universe as we know it.

But this cavern of budding destruction is expected to be strung with a necklace of light.

The ultrahigh intensity of the IC 1623 galaxy merger also stimulated the creation of a region of rapid star formation nearby. It’s called a stellar explosion, and this particular one, according to the European Space Agency, is creating new stars at a rate more than 20 times that of the Milky Way galaxy.

I this is what caught the JWST.

Hubble already gave us a preliminary glimpse of IC 1623 A and B, but astronomy’s new contract with space has pierced the duo’s cosmic veil, just as scientists expected from the beginning. In doing so, it has shown us the luminous core of this merger and presented humanity with a complete and fascinating picture of IC 1623 rather than a hidden one with a central region left to our imaginations.

Here’s Hubble’s view of the merging galaxies IC 1623 A and B. It’s much less bright, because the central regions of these realms are obscured by dark dust.

ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, L. Armus, A. Evans

Why can JWST do what Hubble can’t?

Two words: infrared imaging.

All light emanating from deep space can be classified into a kind of diagram known as the electromagnetic spectrum. Different wavelengths of light, which also translate to different colors in our eyes, are found in different parts. On the one hand you have redder wavelengths, and on the other, bluer ones.

But if you go beyond the red side of the electromagnetic spectrum, as some light does, you get to infrared light.

Infrared light, unlike normal red light, is essentially invisible to the human eye. That means it’s also invisible to instruments that act like human eyes, even if they’re really powerful versions like the Hubble Space Telescope.

But infrared light is precisely the kind of light that emanates from stars within most clouds of thick cosmic dust, like the veil surrounding IC 1623. So to find out what’s going on inside, we need an infrared light-detecting telescope . And this is JWST.

A diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum, showing which regions Hubble and Webb can see.

This infographic illustrates the spectrum of electromagnetic energy, specifically highlighting the parts detected by NASA’s Hubble, Spitzer, and Webb Space Telescopes. Spitzer is now retired and was not as technologically advanced as the JWST.

NASA and J. Olmsted [STScI]

As a side note, starlight and other phenomena located far, far away from Earth also reach our planet as infrared light. That is why the JWST is ready to provide us with information about the distant universe as it was near the beginning of time, information invisible to us and the Hubble Space Telescope. More on that here.

Returning to IC 1623, ESA explains that “Webb’s infrared sensitivity and impressive resolution at these wavelengths allows it to see beyond the dust and has resulted in the spectacular image above, a combination of of MIRI and NIRCam images,” referring to two of JWST’s High-Tech Instruments.

Another easter egg in this image, as with all JWST photos, is the eight-point diffraction peaks you see in the center. (It looks like six spikes, but there are two mini spikes traveling horizontally through the middle point. They’re hard to see.) All JWST images have this signature, in contrast to Hubble’s four-pointed version.


Here is a schematic of what the JWST diffraction peaks look like. You’ll see them in all JWST images!

NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI), Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

These peaks are usually super prominent when there’s a lot of light in an image, which explains why the latest Two Galactic Nucleus Telescope image has its bright central snowflake.

Hopefully, the next time JWST focuses its lens, it will be on one of these views with evidence of something we never thought to ask.

#NASAs #Webb #Space #Telescope #reveals #bright #scene #invisible #Hubble

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