Although it has been more than a week since NASA revealed its first exquisite set of images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the euphoria following that July 12 broadcast has not abated. And at the rate the JWST is collecting cosmic data, I wouldn’t expect it to be anytime soon.
Already, tons of astronomers have been eagerly sifting through JWST’s public datasets, doing their best to make sense of the priceless information this $10 billion machine captured while anchored in the Earth. space a million kilometers from Earth. On Monday, for example, Gabriel Brammer, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, posted a striking purple vortex on Twitter. It’s a living abyss rooted in JWST data that Brammer downloaded online from the distant galaxy NGC 628, otherwise known as Messier 74 or the “ghost galaxy.”
“Oh my god,” Brammer tweeted of the hypnotic glow from the spiraling body 30 million light years away.
Basically, to arrive at this fascinating result, Brammer processed the raw JWST data collected by the Oscilloscope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, which was buried in an online portal called the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes. Next, Brammer assigned various color filters to the wavelengths detected by MIRI emanating from Messier 74 – a galaxy riddled with molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – to make it truly vibrant.
“For a bit more context,” Brammer wrote in response to curious commenters, “the purple color cast here is actually ‘real’ in the sense that the emission from interstellar cigarette smoke (PAH molecules) makes the filters used for blue and brighter red channels relative to green.” In other words, the heavy amethyst hues we see are somehow aesthetically accurate.
But when it comes to casually reading and artistically imagining the findings of the JWST, Brammer is by no means alone. In fact, NASA astronomer Janice Lee — who Brammer says is responsible for the “planning and execution” of the data behind the purple majesty — also took to Twitter with a chilling JWST concoction.
It’s a GIF of the galaxy NGC 7496 switching between Hubble’s visible lens and the JWST’s infrared lens to illuminate “dark dust lanes, revealing in detail the early stages of star formation,” wrote Lee in the Tweet. Fascinatingly, this beautiful rendition is part of a larger project Lee is part of: a program called Phangs, or High Angular Resolution Physics in Neighboring Galaxies.
According to NASA, Phangs is on a mission to simply unravel the mysteries of star formation with the JWST while simultaneously sharing all discoveries with the entire astronomical community. In short, the idea is to help scientists around the world join hands while monitoring JWST, thereby speeding up the process of decoding the unfiltered universe.
Alright, but wait. There is more.
Some scientists on Twitter are even announcing that they have started submitting papers based on JWST information for peer review. Everything is going very, very quickly. Mike Engesser, a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, for example, posted on Twitter the submission of a JWST-related study regarding a transient and possible supernova. According to Engesser, this potential starburst was captured by the JWST’s near-infrared camera. Notably, Brammer also helped this team in their analysis.
On the top left, as Engesser explains, you can see the color composite image of NIRCam data from the JWST, and on the right is the Hubble Space Telescope optical version of the same region, taken in 2011.
But digging even deeper, literally and metaphorically, several researchers also zeroed in on what may be the “oldest galaxy we’ve ever seen” spotted by early JWST NIRCam data. To the untrained eye, it looks like a hidden red dot on a black background.
Harvard University astronomer Rohan Naidu and his colleagues say this galaxy could contain the mass of a billion suns in their arXiv preprint, which also touches on another notable galactic body. However, as Naidu points out, there is also another team after the puzzle of this galaxy duo. They also submitted an article for review to arXiv.
And these findings only scratch the surface of the datasets the JWST already has in its pocket. In just nine days, the astronomical community managed to extract an incredible amount of information from the JWST instruments. It looks like, thanks to NASA’s wonderful new lens on the universe, astronomers are sure to witness many magnificent years ahead.