After months of anticipation and a day after President Joe Biden himself was involved in the release of an image of the early Universe, NASA has now released four other images from the Webb Space Telescope. The agency already told us that targets would include a couple of nebulas, a galaxy cluster, and an exoplanet.
But it wasn’t clear exactly what features of these objects would be the focus or how NASA would process the images so that features that exist in the infrared area of the spectrum could be perceived in the visible area of the spectrum. Scientists we spoke to at the Webb launch event suggested that everyone was aware that aesthetics matter and that officials would be experimenting with different methods to do this processing in a way that balanced scientific accuracy with the “wow” factor everyone expects.
The results are finally being made available, and they definitely managed to wow.
The first image NASA unveiled is a deep look at the early Universe provided by a gravitational lens. Today, the scientists told us that they have a spectrum that identifies the elements present in a galaxy that’s over 13 billion years old—the oldest galaxy that we have this information for. It took less than a day to get the exposure needed for this data.
Next up is the spectrum of an exoplanet, WASP-96b. A lot of key molecules absorb in the infrared, like water and carbon dioxide, so the Webb can register the fingerprint of indications of habitability. WASP-96b is a hot gas giant, so it is nowhere close to habitable, but the exoplanet provided a good first target for getting solid data quickly. The new spectrum picks up many indications of water but at a lower intensity than expected, which suggests that clouds and haze are present in the atmosphere.