After months of anticipation, and a day after President 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 had 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 of these images. Or how NASA would process the images so that features that exist in the infrared area of the spectrum can 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 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 the wow. We’ll add details about the scientific content after it’s discussed at the press conference, which is currently ongoing. But we wanted to get you the images as they become available, so this story will be updated repeatedly as the morning goes along.
The first image they’re unveiling is the deep look at the early Universe provided by a gravitational lens. Today, they’re telling 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. Lots of key molecules absorb in the infrared, like water and carbon dioxide, meaning the Webb can register the fingerprint of things that may provide us an indication of habitability. WASP-96b is a hot gas giant, so is nowhere close to habitability, but provided a good first target for getting solid data quickly. The new spectrum picks up lots of indications of water, but at a lower intensity than expected, which suggests that clouds and haze are present in the atmosphere.