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James Webb Space Telescope Delivers More Questions than Answers – Here 5 of Its Top Images to Date

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Every year in mid-August, North Americans are treated to a spectacle in the skies.  Over the coming days, the Perseid meteor shower will be in full sight, often resulting in up to 100 shooting stars per hour.  While this particular event can be seen with the naked eye, the cosmos holds even more astounding mysteries in distant space that are only now being discovered with the use of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  While these discoveries may provide us with certain answers to the Universe, each also opens up new questions of their own, spidering in to endless possibilities.  The following is a brief look at some of its top imagery captured to date, and the companies that made the JWST a reality.

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

The James Webb Space Telescope is a large, space-based observatory, that became the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope after it successfully launched in late 2021.  Notably, the JWST was a collaborative effort between agencies such as NASA, ESA, and CSA.  Its construction was overseen primarily by Northrop Grumman and Ball Aerospace Corporation.

This state-of-the-art telescope is equipped with a 6.5-meter primary mirror and has the ability to observe in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to peer through dust clouds and study various astronomical phenomena.

Who Was it Named After?

The James Webb Space Telescope is named after James E. Webb, who served as the second administrator of NASA from 1961 to 1968.  During his tenure, Webb oversaw the development and early years of the Apollo program, which aimed to land humans on the Moon.  He played a crucial role in leading NASA through a transformative era, focusing not only on human spaceflight but also on a broader science agenda that laid the foundation for future space exploration.  His leadership, vision, and support for space science and exploration contributed to naming the telescope in his honor.

What is its Goal?

The primary goal for the JWST is to increase our understanding of the universe.  This entails the following, and more.

  • Investigate the Formation of Stars and Planetary Systems: By observing in the infrared spectrum, JWST can penetrate dust clouds where stars and planets are forming, providing unprecedented insights into these processes.
  • Study the Evolution of Galaxies: The telescope will observe galaxies across cosmic time, shedding light on their formation, evolution, and the interplay between galaxies and their environments.
  • Explore the Conditions for Life: JWST will characterize the atmospheres of exoplanets, potentially identifying the chemical signatures of habitable environments.  This could further our understanding of the potential for life beyond Earth.
  • Probe the Early Universe: The telescope is designed to observe the most distant objects in the universe, enabling it to look back in time to the era shortly after the Big Bang.  This can provide key insights into the early formation of structures in the universe.

To achieve these goals, the JWST is positioned at what is called the second Lagrange point (L2).  There, gravitational forces and the orbital motion of the telescope, Earth, and the Sun interact in a way that allows the telescope to remain in a stable position relative to Earth.  This positioning will enable JWST to stay cool and provide an unobstructed view of the universe.  Its mission represents a significant leap in our understanding of the cosmos.

1.  Earths Protector

The Universe is a staggeringly large place.  There is no need to look that far though, as there remain scores of beautiful, and influential features to be found within our own Solar system.  The JWST demonstrated this perfectly after capturing one of our best looks yet at Jupiter – auroras, rings, and all.

Webb NIRCam composite image from two filters – F212N (orange) and F335M (cyan) – of Jupiter system, unlabeled (top) and labeled (bottom).  Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU) and Judy Schmidt.

Many believe that Jupiter plays a role of particular importance by acting as Earth's protector.  Due to its gigantic size, and gravity to match, it is believed by some that Jupiter is responsible for either re-directing or capturing comets and asteroids before they have a chance to approach Earth.  It should be noted that while it may have gained the moniker of Earth's Protector, there is no science to definitely prove this.  For now, Jupiter is our best option for learning about gas giants.  In doing so, this knowledge can then improve our understanding of similar planets found in the depths of space.

2.  Living in a Simulation

At first glance, it would appear as though a pair of actively forming stars in the center of the image below are the ‘stars' of the show.  Interestingly though, this is not what has recently captured the imagination of many.  Rather, if one looks closely enough (1/10th from bottom, slightly skewed right) there is a distant formation that closely resembles a question mark.

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA. Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Naturally, this odd formation has resulted in some taking the unlikely hood of its existence as proof that we are living in a simulation.  However unlikely as this may be, the imagery has managed to stoke conversation surrounding the origin of such a formation, along with a widespread interest in astronomy among the general public.  For now, scientists believe that the formation is the result of two galaxies colliding/merging.

3. Colors of Earendel

At first glance, the following image showing the ‘Colors of Earendel' does not appear as visually impressive as some others on this list.  What makes it astounding is that Earendel is the most distant star to ever be imaged.

CREDITS – Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, D. Coe (STScI/AURA for ESA; Johns Hopkins University), B. Welch (NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center; University of Maryland, College Park).  Image processing: Z. Levay

The star, Earendel, is believed to be situated roughly 28 billion light-years from Earth.  Due to its distance from Earth, the light we see now being emitted from it originated 12.9B years ago.  The name Earendel, which means ‘dawn or morning star', and was taken from the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, was given to this star due to its suspected creation close to the dawn of time.

4.  Star Formation

In celebration of its first year in operation, the JWST released the following imagery showing the birth of various Sun-like stars.  This formation is in what is currently believed to be the closest region of space to Earth where such activity is taking place.

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Klaus Pontoppidan (STScI), Image Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

The image above shows a region of space situated ~390 light-years from Earth, known as the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex.  It shows the formation of roughly 50 stars similar in size to our Sun.  Such imagery is of particular importance as it provides insight into the formation of our own Sun and the solar system.

5.  Re-Imaging the Pillars of Creation

One of the most iconic images ever taken was of the ‘Pillars of Creation'.  First captured in 1995 in the Eagle Nebula, the Pillars of Creation captured the imaginations of scientists around the world with its beauty.  Now, nearly 20 years later, the JWST has re-imaged the Pillars of Creation.

Hubble (2014) vs JWST (2022)

Pillars of Creation – Hubble (2014) vs. JWST (2022)    Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; J. DePasquale, A. Koekemoer, A. Pagan (STScI)

By leveraging its infrared cameras, the JWST was able to peer through vast layers of dust to reveal more detail and beauty in the Pillars of Creation than ever expected.  This formation, which is situated within the Eagle Nebula, is located roughly 6,500 light-years from Earth.  Its name is derived from both its appearance and proclivity for star formation in its vast plumes of dust and cloud.

Making Deep Space Astronomy Possible

As previously stated, there were two main companies responsible for the construction of the JWST and its components.  Each of these publicly traded companies is listed below.

1. Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE: NOC)

Northrop Grumman Corporation, headquartered in Falls Church, Virginia, is a global leader in aerospace and defense technology.  Founded in 1939, the company specializes in cutting-edge systems, including autonomous systems, cyber, space, and strike technologies.  Notable projects like the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the James Webb Space Telescope illustrate their innovation and expertise.  Northrop Grumman serves government and commercial customers worldwide, employing thousands of skilled professionals.  Traded on the New York Stock Exchange under “NOC,” the company stands as a prominent figure in the defense and aerospace sectors.

Welcome to Northrop Grumman

Market Cap: $65.89B

Price to Earnings Ratio (P/E): 14.43

Earnings Per Share (EPS): $30.19

At the time of writing, Northrop Grumman (NOC) boasted the above metrics and is listed as a ‘Buy' among most major investment firms.

2. Ball Corporation (NYSE: BALL)

Ball Corporation, based in Broomfield, Colorado, is a global leader in metal packaging and aerospace technology.  Established in 1880, it originally specialized in glass jars but has since expanded into aluminum products, serving the food, beverage, and personal care industries.  In the aerospace segment, Ball's subsidiary, Ball Aerospace, has contributed to significant projects like the James Webb Space Telescope, providing advanced optical technologies and space systems.  The company's commitment to sustainability and innovation is reflected in its products and practices.  Traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “BALL,” Ball Corporation represents a fusion of traditional manufacturing with cutting-edge technology, showcasing its adaptability and prominence in both the packaging and aerospace fields.

Ball Aerospace Overview

Market Cap: $17.40B

Price to Earnings Ratio (P/E): 21.92

Earnings Per Share (EPS): $2.52

At the time of writing, Ball Corporation (BALL) boasted the above metrics and is listed as a ‘Hold' among most major investment firms.

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