First data from NASA’s Webb Space Telescope has astronomers buzzing on Twitter


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Although it’s been more than a week since NASA unveiled its first exquisite set of images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the excitement hasn’t died down since that July 12 broadcast. And with the speed at which JWST is gathering space data, I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

Already, tons of astronomers are eagerly sifting through JWST’s public datasets, struggling to make sense of the priceless information this $10 billion machine has captured while in space a million miles from Earth. For example, on Monday, Gabriel Brammer, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, tweeted a striking purple swirl. It’s a bright abyss, rooted in the JWST data uploaded online by Brammer, about the distant galaxy NGC 628, also known as Messier 74 or the “Ghost Galaxy.”

“Oh my god,” Brammer tweeted about the hypnotic glow of a spiral body located 30 million light-years away.

In fact, to get this mesmerizing result, Brammer processed the raw JWST data collected by the mid-infrared instrument, or MIRI, which was buried on an online portal called the Barbara A. Mikulski Space Telescope Archive. Brammer then applied various color filters to the MIRI-detected wavelengths coming from Messier 74 — a galaxy riddled with molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — to make it truly bright.

“For a little more context,” Brammer wrote in response to curious commentators, “the purple hue here is actually “real” in the sense that the emission from interstellar cigarette smoke (PAH molecules) makes the filters used for the blue and red channels brighter compared to green.” In other words, the heavy amethyst shades we see are aesthetically accurate.

But when it comes to casual viewing and artistic presentation of JWST results, Brammer is not in the least bit alone. In fact, NASA astronomer Janice Lee, who Brammer says is in charge of “planning and executing” the data behind purple greatness, also tweeted a chilling mix of JWST.

This is a GIF of the galaxy NGC 7496 switching between Hubble’s visible lens and JWST’s infrared lens to illuminate “dark dust lanes, revealing in detail the earliest stages of star formation,” Lee tweeted. Surprisingly, this beautiful image is part of a larger project Li is involved in: a program called Phangs, or High Angular Resolution Physics in Nearby Galaxies.

According to NASA, Fangs is on a mission to simply unravel the mysteries of star formation using JWST while sharing any discoveries with the entire astronomical community. In short, the idea is to help scientists around the world join forces by observing JWST, thereby speeding up the process of deciphering the unfiltered universe.

Okay, but wait. Eat more.

Some scientists on Twitter are even announcing that they have begun submitting papers based on JWST information for peer review. Everything happens very, very quickly. Mike Engesser, a staff scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, for example, tweeted about the presentation of a JWST-related study regarding a transient and possible supernova. This potential star explosion was captured by the JWST near-infrared camera, Engesser said. Notably, Brammer also helped this team with its analysis.

On the top left, as Engesser explains, you can see a color composite image from the NIRCam JWST data, and on the right, an optical version of the same area taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2011.

But, digging even deeper, literally and metaphorically, several researchers have also focused on what could be “the oldest galaxy we’ve ever seen” found in JWST NIRCam’s early release data. To the untrained eye, it looks like a red dot hiding against a pitch-black background.

Harvard University astronomer Rohan Naidu and colleagues say this galaxy could contain the mass of a billion suns in their arXiv preprint, which also touches on another known galactic body. However, as Naidoo points out, there is another team that is solving the mystery of this galactic duo. They also submitted the paper to arXiv for review.

And these discoveries are just scratching the surface of the datasets that JWST already has in its pocket. In just nine days, the astronomical community has managed to squeeze an incredible amount of information out of the JWST instruments. It seems that with NASA’s wonderful new lens looking out at the universe, stargazers are destined to witness many glorious years to come.

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