Astro Bob: Webb Telescope wows!

The first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope are as sharp and colorful as they are revealing.

Stephan’s Quintet
The Webb Telescope reveals a new level of detail in Stephan’s Quintet, a small cluster of galaxies in the constellation Pegasus. The group was featured at the start of the holiday classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when two angels in heaven, which was depicted as "talking galaxies" in Stephan's Quintet, discuss highlights of George Bailey's life on Earth. This image contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. Gravitational interactions between the galaxies have pulled tails of gas and dust from several members and stoked the formation sparkling new star clusters. The bottom galaxy isn't a true member of the group but lies in the foreground along the same line of sight. The four related galaxies across the top are 290 million light-years away.
Contributed / NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
We are part of The Trust Project.

We applaud the thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians from 14 countries, 29 states and Washington D.C. on the success of the largest telescope ever sent to space. In just 6 1/2 months, NASA's Webb Space Telescope traveled a million miles (1.5 million kilomesters) to its orbital "parking spot," unfolded and aligned its light-hungry mirrors and chilled in the vacuum of outer space to more than 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (240 below zero Celsius). Its chores finished, photography commenced.

Cosmic cliffs
You're looking at the craggy edge of the nearby star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula, located in the southern hemisphere constellation Carina the Keel. In infrared light, which can penetrate dust far better than visible light, we see great caverns of gas and dust sculpted by powerful winds and ultraviolet radiation from massive, young, hot stars located in the center (top) of the bubble. Called the Cosmic Cliffs, the region is actually the edge of a gigantic, gaseous cavity roughly 7,600 light-years away.
Contributed / NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Because the Webb is optimized to view the heavens in infrared light, which we sense as heat, it had to cool down behind its five-layer sunshield to shockingly-low temperatures so the telescope itself wouldn't glow in infrared light and ruin the images.

Exoplanet spectrum
The WST captured the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding the hot, puffy gas giant planet WASP-96b orbiting a distant sun-like star. The observation, which reveals the presence of specific gas molecules based on tiny decreases in the brightness of precise colors of light, is the most detailed of its kind to date and demonstrates Webb’s unprecedented ability to analyze atmospheres hundreds of light-years away.
Contributed / NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and the W

NASA released four photos and a spectrum (above) taken of the extraterrestrial planet WASP-96b , a gas giant with half the mass of Jupiter located 1,150 light-years away in the southern hemisphere constellation Phoenix. WASP-96b is one of more than 5,100 known exoplanets and orbits its sun every 3.4 days.

Southern Ring Nebula
Side-by-side comparison images of the Southern Ring Nebula (NGC 3132) were taken by the Webb Telescope in near-infrared light, left, and mid-infrared light, right. A white dwarf, the dying ember of a star like our sun, illuminates what was once the outer layers of its atmosphere since ejected into space In the left image, the white dwarf appears to the lower left of the bright, central star, partially hidden by a diffraction spike. The same star appears — but brighter, larger and redder — in the right image. The brighter star in both images hasn’t yet shed its layers. It closely orbits the dimmer white dwarf, helping to distribute what it’s ejected. The images look different because two different cameras collected different wavelengths of light. Near-infrared is closer to the visible waves of light our eyes detect than mid-infrared.
Contributed / Space Telescope Science Institut/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and the W

Additional images (below) feature a spectacular star-forming region in the Carina Nebula, the beautiful Southern Ring Nebula and its dying central star, and the deepest infrared photo of the sky ever taken.

Webb first color image July 11 2022.jpg
This image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. It's the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe so far, and it only took the Webb Telescope 12.5 hours of exposure time. For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope photographed the same cluster for weeks, with far inferior resolution and detail. The massive gravitational field of the cluster acts like a lens and bends the light of much more distant galaxies into focus as a series of reddish arcs across the image. Predicted by Einstein as early as 1915, the phenomenon is called gravitational lensing.
Contributed / NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

In the deep image, thousands of galaxies are visible in the space of a grain of sand held at arm's length against the sky. If you multiply that number across the entire sky your tally would be nearly 2 trillion, the current estimate of the total number of galaxies in the observable universe. I know. I can barely get my head around it either.


Here are the high resolution versions of each of the photos. Just click and wallow in the detail:

I'm struck by how sharp the images are and the astonishing amount of detail we can see. They're only the beginning of a grand adventure in which we'll all share.

Read more from Astro Bob
The Red Planet is only 50.6 million miles away — almost walking distance! It won't get this close again until May 2031.

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune.

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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