In its first year of science operations, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has delivered on its promise of unveiling the cosmos like never before, from our cosmic backyard in the solar system to distant galaxies near the dawn of time. NASA has released Webb’s photograph of a tiny star-forming area in the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex to commemorate the end of a successful first year.
“In just one year, the James Webb Space Telescope has transformed humanity’s view of the universe, peering into dust clouds and seeing light from distant corners of the universe for the first time. Every new image is a new discovery, allowing scientists all over the world to ask and answer questions they could never have imagined before,” stated NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“Webb is an investment in American innovation, but it is also a scientific feat made possible by NASA’s international partners who share a can-do attitude and a desire to push the boundaries of what is known to be possible.” Thousands of engineers, scientists, and leaders have dedicated their lives to this quest, and their efforts will continue to advance our understanding of the universe’s origins – and our place in it.”
The closest star-forming zone to us is depicted in the latest Webb image released today. Its close closeness (390 light-years) allows for a close-up with no foreground stars in the intervening region.
Webb’s image of Rho Ophiuchi allows us to witness a very brief period in the stellar lifecycle with new clarity. Our own Sun experienced a phase like this, long ago, and now we have the technology to see the beginning of another’s star’s story.Klaus Pontoppidan
“On its first anniversary, the James Webb Space Telescope has already fulfilled its promise to unfold the universe, providing humanity with a breathtaking treasure trove of images and science that will last for decades,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “An engineering marvel built by the world’s leading scientists and engineers, Webb has given us a more intricate understanding of galaxies, stars, and the atmospheres of planets outside of our solar system than ever before, laying the groundwork for NASA to lead the world in a new era of scientific discovery and the search for habitable worlds.”
Webb’s image depicts a region with around 50 young stars, all of which are similar in mass to the Sun or smaller. Where heavy dust cocoons still forming protostars, the darkest spots are the densest. Massive bipolar jets of molecular hydrogen dominate the image, appearing horizontally across the upper third and vertically on the right. These happen when a star first breaks through its natal envelope of cosmic dust, launching a pair of opposing jets into space like a newborn reaching her arms out into the world. In the lower half of the photograph, the star S1 has carved out a luminous cave of dust. It is the image’s only star that is much larger than the Sun.
“Webb’s image of Rho Ophiuchi allows us to witness a very brief period in the stellar lifecycle with new clarity. Our own Sun experienced a phase like this, long ago, and now we have the technology to see the beginning of another star’s story,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, who served as Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, since before the telescope’s launch and through the first year of operations.
Some stars in the image display tell-tale shadows indicating protoplanetary disks – potential future planetary systems in the making.
A Full Year, Across the Full Sky
From its very first deep field image, unveiled by President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Nelson live at the White House, Webb has delivered on its promise to show us more of the universe than ever before. However, Webb revealed much more than distant galaxies in the early universe.
“The breadth of science Webb is capable of exploring really becomes clear now when we have a full year’s worth of data from targets across the sky,” said Eric Smith, associate director for research in the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters and Webb program scientist. “Webb’s first year of science has not only taught us new things about our universe, but it has revealed the capabilities of the telescope to be greater than our expectations, meaning future discoveries will be even more amazing.” The global astronomy community has spent the past year excitedly poring over Webb’s initial public data and getting a feel for how to work with it.
Webb’s clear spectra — the rich information gleaned from light by the telescope’s spectroscopic equipment — have scientists enthused beyond the breathtaking infrared photographs. Webb’s spectra have confirmed the distances of some of the most distant galaxies ever spotted, as well as the earliest and most distant supermassive black holes detected.
They have identified the compositions of planet atmospheres (or lack thereof) in greater detail than ever before, and for the first time have narrowed down what kinds of atmospheres may exist on rocky exoplanets. They have also discovered the chemical composition of star nurseries and protoplanetary disks, finding water, organic carbon-containing molecules, and other elements. Webb’s observations have already resulted in hundreds of scholarly papers resolving long-standing concerns and raising new ones for Webb to address.
Webb science’s breadth is also evident in its views of our most familiar region of space: our own solar system. Faint rings of gas giants emerge from the blackness, dotted by moons, while Webb depicts faraway galaxies in the backdrop. Webb is trying to piece together clues about our own origins — how Earth became the optimum home for life as we know it — by comparing detections of water and other chemicals in our solar system with those identified in the disks of much younger planetary systems.
“With a year of science under our belts, we know exactly how powerful this telescope is, and we have delivered a year of spectacular data and discoveries,” said Webb Senior Project Scientist Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “For year two, we’ve chosen an ambitious set of observations that builds on everything we’ve learned thus far.” Webb’s scientific mission is only beginning; there is so much more to come.”