It was the $10 billion gift to the world. A machine that would show us our place in the universe.
The James Webb Space Telescope was launched exactly a year ago, on Christmas day. It had taken three decades to plan, design and build.
Many wondered if this successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope could actually live up to expectations.
We had to wait a few months for his epic 6.5m primary mirror to be unpacked and focused and his other systems tested and calibrated.
But yes, it was all they said. The American, European and Canadian space agencies threw a party in July to publish the first color pictures. What you see on this page are some of the later published images that you may have missed.
The first thing to think about about James Webb is that it is an infrared telescope. It sees the sky at wavelengths of light beyond what our eyes can see.
Astronomers use its various cameras to explore regions of the cosmos, like these great towers of gas and dust. The pillars were a favorite target of Hubble. It would take you several years, traveling at the speed of light, to traverse this entire scene.
Continue reading: The ghostly “Pillars of Creation” of the Webb telescope
They call this scene the Cosmic Cliffs. It’s the edge of a gigantic, gaseous cavity within another dusty, star-forming nebula known as Carina.
The cavity was sculpted by intense ultraviolet radiation and winds from hot, young stars that are currently out of shot.
There is a distance of about 15 light-years from one side of this image to the other. A light year is approximately 9.46 trillion km (5.88 trillion miles).
This large galaxy on the right was discovered by the great Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky in the 1940s. Its intricate cartwheel structure is the result of a head-on collision with another galaxy. The diameter is about 145,000 light years.
James Webb doesn’t just look into the deep universe. It also examines objects in our own solar system. This jewel is the eighth planet from the sun: Neptune seen with its rings. The small white dots surrounding it are moons, as is the large “pointed star” above. This is Triton, Neptune’s largest satellite. The spikes are an artifact of the design of James Webb’s mirror system.
Continue reading: Ringed Neptune taken by the James Webb Telescope
Orion is one of the most well-known regions of heaven. It is a star-forming region, or nebula, about 1,350 light-years from Earth. Here Webb depicts a feature called the Orion Bar, which is a wall of dense gas and dust.
In one of the big space stories of the year, Nasa steered a spacecraft towards an asteroid called Dimorphos to see if it was possible to deflect the path of the 160m wide rock. It was a test of a strategy to defend Earth from threatening asteroids. James Webb caught the shower of 1,000 tons of debris thrown up on impact.
Continue reading: Asteroid deflection experiment enhanced by debris
This was one of the most intriguing Webb pictures of the year. The “WR” refers to Wolf-Rayet. It’s kind of a star, a big one, coming to the end of its life. Wolf-Rayets blows huge gaseous winds into space. An unseen companion star in this image compresses these winds into dust. The dust shells you see extend outward over 10 trillion kilometers. That’s 70,000 times the distance between the earth and the sun.
Continue reading: James Webb Telescope Solves Dust Star Mysteries
Also known as the Phantom Galaxy, M74 is known for its prominent spiral arms. It’s about 32 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pisces and almost directly across from us, giving Webb the perfect view of those arms and their structure. The telescope’s detectors are particularly good at picking out all the fine filaments of gas and dust.
You can still hear Jonathans Discovery programs for the BBC World Service in which he discusses the Webb project with his leading scientists and engineers.
And if there’s one story about science that Webb has made over the last year, it’s this: