The space milestone of 2022: the spectacular images of James Webb

The James Webb telescope took decades to develop and launch.


But once in space, it is giving us new answers to the questions we as humanity ask about our presence in the universe.

At the end of 2021, astronomy saw one of its greatest feats take flight towards its goal: aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, the James Webb telescope began its space mission heading for 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. A year later, the program that has been in progress since 1996 and which cost more than 10 billion dollars, has given more than encouraging results for this scientific field.

This 2022, marked by the first step of humanity to return to the Moon, the first planetary defense mission and multiple discoveries on Mars, he had the happiness of seeing Webb in operation, who, with his first images, has begun to answer key questions of the universe that surrounds us and that have intrigued science for decades.

“Without a doubt, it has been the space event of 2022,” says Carla Arce-Tord, a Physics graduate from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and a PhD candidate in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chile, also known as ‘AstroCarla’ in social networks, where he has more than 100,000 followers. “Not only the technology involved in the development of James Webb, but the fact that the entire mission was carried out with extreme care, with minimal errors, and the advancement and revolution that observations from this telescope imply, have allowed us to open another visual door to the universe and understand more accurately details and phenomena that we did not understand or observe with such precision. And that is only the beginning”.

“The launch, launch and activation of James Webb was undoubtedly the event of the year,” highlights technology specialist Fabio Baccaglioni, who writes for . “Already in the first test images that I send, it was possible to confirm how important it is as a tool for humanity.”

What were the milestones of James Webb during this 2022 that has made astronomy rethink its foundations?

“I consider it the space event of the year. In fact, I learned about this project a little over 15 years ago, when I saw it in an artist’s rendering in the book celebrating 15 years of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). It was incredible that they were considering sending a telescope of that size into space and I couldn’t imagine how this task would be carried out”, recalls physicist Vanessa Navarrete from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, who teaches astronomy courses on her blog Let’s talk about Universe. “Now, the JWST gives us a new window to observe, not only because it has larger optics than the HST, which ensures a great improvement in image resolution, but also because this optic is optimized for observing in the infrared, it is In other words, we will be able to study much weaker objects and even some that have remained hidden by interstellar dust, so we will be able to see even in areas that have been inaccessible in the visible range”.

The day where it all began: July 12

Although on the way to this date, James Webb was already sending calibration photographs of his instruments , it would not be until July 12 where we could see the magnificence of his images.

That Monday, the President of the United States, Joe Biden, was in charge of revealing the first color image of the infrared telescope: the cluster of galaxies SMACS J0723.3-7327 .

This spectacular photograph encompasses a patch of sky that, to a ground-based observer, appears about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length, revealing thousands of galaxies in a tiny sliver of the vast universe.

Its particularity, and it is precisely the great attribute of the Webb, is that thanks to its infrared cameras, it was possible to know “the past”: this is what the cluster looked like 4,600 million years ago and many of these internal galaxies were more than 13 thousand million light years.

Arce-Tord reminds us that “the James Webb deep field image made the cover of TIME magazine as the astronomical image of 2022”.

On that date, four other stars were protagonists of the astronomical feat : the Carina Nebula , the Southern Ring Nebula , Stephan’s Quintet and the exoplanet WASP-96b . Each had its own particularity: the Carina shot revealed for the first time areas of previously invisible star birth; the Southern Ring showed the death of a star 2,500 light-years away; the quintet was the first major James Webb image at 290 million light-years, while the latest produced the most accurate photo to date of the composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

“For me it is difficult to choose the best image of James Webb because they are all spectacular visually speaking and also give an incredible amount of scientific information. But if I had to choose, I would go for two in particular”, the Peruvian astrophysicist tells us. “The first would be the region of star formation in the Carina Nebula. It is spectacular and gives us a lot of scientific information about the processes that are taking place just by looking at it: we see nuclei of forming stars, walls of gas spreading due to the shocks created by newly formed or newly formed stars. We see very young, very hot stars.”

“But I don’t want to leave out  the images and light spectra of the most distant galaxies observed to date in the infrared . The James Webb managed to capture galaxies whose light was emitted 13.4 billion years ago, very close to the Big Bang (13.8 billion years). These are unprecedented observations that help us understand the formation of the first galaxies, their characteristics and at what time in the early universe they began to develop. These are definitely observations that should not be put aside because they are novel and revolutionary.”

science months

The first images of Webb were only the starting point of the mission that is expected to last more than the 10 years initially agreed.

Over the next several months, James Webb captured TRAPPIST-1, the best candidate for finding life in space . It also revealed a new image of the Cartwheel Galaxy , the stunning pattern of the ‘ghost galaxy’ M74 , the Tarantula Nebula 161,000 light-years away , the Orion Nebula , ‘a fiery hourglass’ as it form a star or the spectacular image of the merger of two galaxies.

One of the favorite shots of the scientific community was the one that starred in the Pillars of Creation , a vast area where stars form within dense clouds of gas and dust. “The image of the Pillars of Creation has been by far the best so far,” emphasizes Baccaglioni. “It demonstrated not only the quality but the technological advance because it required much less exposure time to obtain the same image that was known.”

For Navarrete, this image is also one of his favorites. “He could mention the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula which he already considered an impressive image when taken by the HST, not only for its beauty but for what it represents: a region of star formation and birth. In the image taken by the HST, very dark areas can be observed due to the high concentration of material (interstellar gas and dust) that present a glow caused by the radiation of the nascent stars. The James Webb Telescopewith his NIRCam camera (near infrared camera) he was able to capture in this nebula a large number of stars that are hidden from view by clouds of interstellar gas and dust, as well as the structure in these clouds and many details that will help us understand better how these star formation processes happen”.

The images coming from Webb are initially invisible to the human eye, because it operates essentially in the infrared spectrum, unlike Hubble. But although there is even talk that the most modern device will retire the oldest , both telescopes have worked together to make complementary images. 

With only months in operation, James Webb has wowed the scientific community. “He is behaving much better than we expected,” Massimo Stiavelli, head of mission at the Space Telescope Science Institute, who pilots this 6.5-tonne spacecraft, told AFP at one point . “The instruments are more efficient, the lenses more precise and stable.”

And that panorama is more than exciting for the study of the universe. We are still in the primary stage of the telescope, so we can expect “big surprises” in the course of the mission. And according to NASA , these images and data invite scientists to “revise their models of what we think is correct about galaxies and stars.”