How the first scientific images of JWST will blow us all up

In astronomy, we study the universe by collecting light.

Astronomers have used this set of monochrome images shown around the edge to construct a color image (center) of a ring of star clusters surrounding the core of the galaxy NGC 1512. By adding a series of images made with different photometric filters, one can create a rich color image with essential details of temperature, dust and more.

(Credit: NASA, ESA, Dan Maoz (Tel Aviv University, Israel and Columbia University, USA))

However, using only visible light is incredibly restrictive.

Although visible light gives us a rich and varied view of objects in the universe, it represents only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The range of 0.4 to 0.7 microns that is noticeable to human vision is only a small flash compared to the JWST wavelength range of 0.5 to 28 microns.

(Credit: Philip Ronan / Wikimedia Commons)

Covering only wavelengths of 400-700 nanometers, optical astronomy ignores most features.

The Andromeda Galaxy, the closest large galaxy to Earth, shows a huge variety of details depending on which wavelength or set of wavelengths of light is viewed. Even the optical view, top left, is made up of many different filters. Shown together, they reveal an incredible array of phenomena present in this spiral galaxy. Multiwave astronomy can cast unexpected views on almost any astronomical object or phenomenon.

(Credit: infrared: ESA / Herschel / PACS / SPIRE / J. Fritz, U. Gent; X-rays: ESA / XMM-Newton / EPIC / W. Pietsch, MPE; optical: R. Gendler)

But multiwave astronomy can reveal otherwise invisible details.

The Helix Nebula, a dying remnant of a Sun-like star, reveals its gas distribution in visible light, but shows a set of obscured features that appear nodules and are fragmented in infrared light. Multi-wave views can reveal features that do not appear in just one set of light wavelengths.

(Credit: ESO / VISTA / J. Emerson; Recognition: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit; Animation: E. Siegel)

In particular, the dusty, star-forming regions are home to spectacular phenomena that are just waiting to be discovered.

The Kiel nebula, shown in visible (above) and near infrared (below) light, is represented by the Hubble Space Telescope in a series of different wavelengths, which allows these two very different views to be constructed. All the dusty, star-forming regions will have spectacularly different characteristics revealed by watching it in different wavelengths of light, and this should lay the groundwork for what JWST can and should do.

(Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO team)

One of Hubble’s most iconic goals is the Pillars of Creation.

Located in the Eagle Nebula, a large space race ends there, about 7,000 light-years away.

This 3-D visualization of the location and properties of the element that appears as the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula actually consists of at least four different, unrelated components that are on either side of a rich star cluster: NGC 6611. neutral matter simultaneously absorbs and reflects starlight, resulting in its unique appearance at optical wavelengths.

(Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser)

Visible light indicates neutral matter, absorbing and reflecting light from surrounding stars.

This visible light image of much of the Eagle Nebula was taken from Earth with an amateur setting in 2019. It reveals a number of iconic features inside, including young stars and dense, dusty regions where new stars are forming. The pillars of creation, in the center, reflect and absorb starlight, which leads to its iconic appearance.

(Credit: David (Deddy) Glory / Wikimedia Commons)

Inside, new stars form, which evaporate the pillars from the inside.

This largely unknown view of the Pillars of Creation shows the limits of the Hubble Space Telescope: reaching near infrared to peek through the neutral matter of the Pillars and the stars forming inside. Most of the stars are background objects, behind the pillars, but a few are protostars that are currently forming inside them.

(Credit: NASA, ESA / Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team)

Outside, external stellar radiation evaporates neutral matter.

By rotating and stretching the two high-resolution Hubble images at the top of the highest pillar relative to each other, the changes from 1995 to 2015 can be superimposed. Contrary to many people’s expectations, the evaporation process is slow and small.

(Credit: WFC3: NASA, ESA / Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team WFPC2: NASA, ESA / Hubble, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scoen (Arizona State University))

The competition is to form new stars inside before the gas disappears completely.

The Pillars of Creation are one of the last remaining dense nodes of neutral, star-forming matter in the Eagle Nebula. Outside, hot stars irradiate the pillars, evaporating the gas. Inside the pillars, matter collapses and new stars form, which also irradiate the pillars from the inside. We are witnessing the last breaths of star formation in this region.

(Credit: Roy Levy and Mike Selby / Wikimedia Commons)

Hubble’s double images, separated by 20 years, show that this structure is evolving.

This image compares two views of the Pillars of the Eagle Nebula Creation, made with Hubble 20 years apart. The new image on the left captures almost the same region as in 1995, on the right. However, the newer image uses Hubble’s wide-range camera, installed in 2009, to capture light from luminous oxygen, hydrogen and sulfur with greater clarity as well as greater field of view. The pillars change very slowly over time; it must take hundreds of thousands of years for evaporation to complete.

(Credit: WFC3: NASA, ESA / Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team; WFPC2: NASA, ESA / Hubble, STScI, J. Hester and P. Schoen (Arizona State University))

But other wavelengths of light reveal what happens under the dust.

Chandra’s unique ability to recognize and locate X-ray sources has made it possible to identify hundreds of very young stars and those still in the making (known as “protostars”). Infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory show that 219 of the X-ray sources in the Eagle Nebula are young stars surrounded by dust and gas disks, and 964 are young stars without those disks. If you are wondering, no remnants of the supernova have been found; the pillars are not destroyed.

(Credit: NASA / CXC / INAF / M.Guarcello et al .; Optical: NASA / STScI)

X-ray wavelengths from NASA’s Chandra reveal new stars and stellar debris.

Using Chandra, the researchers discovered more than 1,700 X-ray sources in the Eagle Nebula. Two-thirds of these sources are probably young stars located in the nebula, and some of them are visible in this small field of view around the Pillars of Creation. Although most of the sources do not come from the pillars themselves, the “eye” of the largest pillar corresponds to a protostar, about 5 times the mass of the Sun.

(Credit: NASA / CXC / INAF / M.Guarcello et al .; Optical: NASA / STScI)

Nearby, infrared views peek through the dust, revealing young stars inside.

infrared poles of creation

This infrared view of the Pillars of Creation from ESO’s very large telescope, an 8.2-meter terrestrial telescope, largely peeks through the dust of the Pillars of Creation to reveal the stars forming inside. JWST views will be much higher resolution, much more detailed and will cover a much wider range of wavelengths.

(Credit: VLT / ISAAC / McCaughrean & Andersen / AIP / ESO)

Herschel’s distant infrared eyes reveal cool, neutral matter that will eventually form new stars.

Herschel's pillars

This image of Herschel in the Eagle Nebula shows the self-emission of intensely cold gas and dust from the nebula like never before. Each color shows a different powder temperature, from about 10 degrees above absolute zero (10 kelvins or minus 442 degrees Fahrenheit) for red, to about 40 kelvins or minus 388 degrees Fahrenheit for blue. The pillars of creation are among the hottest parts of the nebula, as revealed by these wavelengths.

(Credit: ESA / Herschel / PACS / SPIRE / Hill, Motte, HOBYS Key Program Consortium)

NASA’s Spitzer has previously looked at JWST wavelengths.

infrared poles

This 2007 infrared composite view of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope reveals the “pillars of creation” on the right and the “spire” or “fairy” on the left, similar to the iconic features revealed by Hubble in optical wavelengths. . JWST will significantly improve these views by showing us details that Spitzer could only dream of.

(Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / N. Flagey (IAS / SSC) & A. Noriega-Crespo (SSC / Caltech))

With extremely superior power and light-collection resolution, this is the perfect “first scientific goal” of JWST.


Although Spitzer (launched in 2003) was earlier than WISE (launched in 2009), it had a larger mirror and a narrower field of vision. Even the first image of JWST at comparable wavelengths shown next to them can resolve the same characteristics in the same region with unprecedented precision. This is a preliminary overview of the quality of science that we will receive with JWST.

(Credit: NASA and WISE / SSC / IRAC / STScI, compiled by AndrĂ¡s Gaspar)

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, images and no more than 200 words. Talk less; Smile more.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.