James Webb telescope celebrates stellar first year

The James Webb Space Telescope celebrated its first birthday in style, beaming back a spectacular image of dozens of young stars in the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. Because these are located a ‘mere’ 390 light years away, the pictures are remarkable in their clarity.

The Rho Ophiuchi star cluster is the closest of its kind to our solar system. Most of its stars are similar in mass to our Sun or smaller. NASA released the image on July 12th, to commemorate what it described as the telescope’s “successful” first twelve months.

“The darkest areas are the densest, where thick dust cocoons still-forming protostars,” said NASA, commenting on the image. “Huge bipolar jets of molecular hydrogen, represented in red, dominate the image, appearing horizontally across the upper third and vertically on the right.”

And in a rather poetic turn of phrase for an organization of hardcore scientists, it added: “These occur when a star first bursts through its natal envelope of cosmic dust, shooting out a pair of opposing jets into space like a newborn first stretching her arms out into the world.”

rho ophiuchi cloud
Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. Image by NASA.

To be fair, NASA certainly has reasons to eulogize the James Webb telescope, overseen by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. In its first year it has confirmed the distance of some of the farthest galaxies observed by humans, as well as discovering some of the earliest and biggest black holes.

The telescope gleans this vital information through its spectroscopic instruments that enable it to study light to capture the visual data or spectra.

“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,” added NASA.

Webb’s spectra have also revealed the chemical makeup of dust and gas clouds in space that gradually form into stars, detecting water, organic carbon-containing molecules, and other elements.

NASA says such observations have already generated hundreds of academic papers answering longstanding scientific questions — as well as raising new ones. Webb’s observations of more far-flung regions of the Universe have helped further knowledge of our own solar system too, the US space agency adds.

“Faint rings of gas giants appear out of the darkness, dotted by moons, while in the background Webb shows distant galaxies,” it said. “By comparing detections of water and other molecules in our solar system with those found in the disks of other, much younger planetary systems, Webb is helping to build up clues about our own origins — how Earth became the ideal place for life as we know it.”

Heaping praise on the telescope, Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said it was “gifting humanity with a breathtaking treasure trove of images and science that will last for decades” and “laying the groundwork for NASA to lead the world in a new era of scientific discovery and the search for habitable worlds.”

“On its first anniversary, the James Webb Space Telescope has already delivered upon its promise to unfold the universe,” she added.

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