Although it has been more than a week since NASA unveiled its first exquisite collection of images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the excitement following this July 12 broadcast has not waned. And at the rate at which the JWST has been collecting cosmic data, I wouldn’t expect that any time soon.
Countless astronomers have been eagerly trawling through public JWST datasets, doing their best to understand the priceless information this $10 billion machine captured while anchored in space a million miles from Earth. For example, on Monday, Gabriel Brammer, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, posted a flashy purple swirl on Twitter. It’s a vibrant abyss rooted in JWST data Brammer downloaded online of distant galaxy NGC 628, also known as Messier 74 or the “Phantom Galaxy.”
“Oh good god,” Brammer tweeted at the hypnotic glow of the spiral body, 30 million light-years away.
To arrive at this intriguing result, Brammer essentially processed raw JWST data collected by the oscilloscope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, buried at an online portal called the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes. Brammer then mapped MIRI-detected wavelengths emanating from Messier 74 — a galaxy teeming with molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — to different color filters to really make it pop.
“For a bit more context,” Brammer wrote in response to curious commenters, “the purple tint here is actually ‘real’ in the sense that emission from interstellar cigarette smoke (PAH molecules) makes up the filters used for the blue and red channels.” lighter than the green ones.” In other words, the heavy amethyst tones we see are somehow aesthetically accurate.
But when it comes to casually reading the results of the JWST and imagining yourself artistically, Brammer is not the least bit alone. In fact, NASA astronomer Janice Lee – who Brammer says is responsible for the “planning and execution” of the data behind the violet majesty – also took to Twitter with a chilling JWST concoction.
It’s a GIF of the galaxy NGC 7496 that switches between the Hubble’s visible lens and the JWST’s infrared lens to “illuminate dark dust lanes revealing in detail the earliest stages of star formation,” Lee wrote in the tweet. Intriguingly, this beautiful rendition is part of a larger project Lee is involved with: a program called Phangs, or High Angular Resolution Physics in Nearby Galaxies.
According to NASA, Phangs’ mission is to simply unravel the mysteries of star formation using the JWST, while sharing any discoveries with the wider astronomical community. In short, the idea is to help scientists around the world band together while watching over JWST, thus accelerating the process of deciphering the unfiltered universe.
OK, but wait. there is more
Some scientists even announce on Twitter that they have started submitting articles based on JWST information for peer review. It all happens very, very quickly. Mike Engesser, research associate at the Space Telescope Science Institute, for example, has posted on Twitter about submitting a JWST-related study on a transient and possible supernova. According to Engesser, this potential starburst was captured by the JWST’s near-infrared camera. Remarkably, Brammer also assisted this team with their analysis.
As Engesser explains, you can see the composite color image from the JWST NIRCam data on the top left and the Hubble Space Telescope optical version of the same region on the right, taken in 2011.
But to dig even deeper, both literally and metaphorically, several researchers have also focused on what may be “the oldest galaxy we’ve ever seen,” discovered by early-released JWST NIRCam data. To the untrained eye, it appears to be a red dot lurking on a pitch black background.
Harvard University astronomer Rohan Naidu and colleagues say this galaxy could hold the mass of a billion suns in its arXiv preprint, which also touches another notable galactic body. However, as Naidu points out, there’s another team behind the mystery of this galaxy duo as well. They also submitted a paper to arXiv for review.
And these discoveries only scratch the surface of data sets JWST already has in its pocket. In just nine days, the astronomy community has managed to squeeze an incredible amount of information from the instruments at JWST. It appears stargazers will be witness to many great years ahead thanks to NASA’s wondrous new lens on the universe.