From our own cosmic backyard in the Solar System to distant galaxies near the dawn of time, the NASA/European Space Agency/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has delivered on its promise to reveal the universe like never before in its first year of scientific operation. To celebrate the end of a successful first year, a new web image has been released of a small star-forming region in the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex
The new Webb image released this week on the occasion of the one year anniversary of the Webb Space Telescope's start of operation, shows the closest star forming region to us. Its proximity, 390 light years, allows for a very detailed close-up photograph, without stars in the background in the separating space.
The region shown contains about 50 young stars, all of which are similar in mass to the Sun or smaller. The darkest areas are the densest, and there thick dust cocoons are still forming protostars. The dominant element in the image is huge red bipolar jets of molecular hydrogen visible horizontally across the upper third and vertically to the right. This happens when a star first bursts through its natal envelope of cosmic dust, shooting out a pair of opposing jets into space. In contrast, the star S1 has created a glowing dust cave in the lower half of the image. S1 is the only star in the image that is much more massive than the Sun.
Some stars in the image show telltale shadows that indicate protoplanetary disks – potential future planetary systems in the making.
Since its first deep field image released in July 2022, Webb has kept his promise to reveal more of the universe to us than ever before. But Webb has revealed much more than distant galaxies in the early universe.
Beyond the amazing AA images, what really excites scientists are Webb's sharp spectra - the detailed information that can be extracted from light by the telescope's spectroscopic instruments. From Webb's spectra, they verified the distances of some of the most distant galaxies ever observed, and discovered the most distant and ancient supermassive black holes. They identified the composition of planetary atmospheres (or lack thereof) in more detail than ever before, narrowing down for the first time the types of atmospheres that may have existed on rocky exoplanets. They also discovered the chemical composition of production houses for stars and protoplanetary disks, and identified water, organic molecules containing carbon, and more. Webb's observations have already produced hundreds of scientific papers that have answered old questions and raised new questions to be addressed through Webb.
The breadth of Webb's science is also evident in his observations of the region of space we know best - the solar system. Dim rings of gas giants emerge from the darkness, dotted with moons, and in the background a web shows distant galaxies. By comparing discoveries 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 glean clues about our origins—how Earth became the ideal place for life as we know it.
After a year, Webb's science mission is just beginning. The second year of observations has already been selected, with plans to build on an exciting first year that exceeded expectations.
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