The Webb telescope has just stared at the heart of a fascinating galaxy

The James Webb Space Telescope is so powerful it can vividly see stars in a galaxy 17 million light-years away.

Astronomers have aimed the most advanced space observatory ever built on the galaxy NGC 5068, peering deep into its starry core. The main goal is to better understand how stars, like our energy-providing sun, form and evolve in galaxies. Basically, Webb sees a type of light invisible to the naked eye, called infrared light. These long infrared light waves pass through thick clouds of cosmic gas and dust, allowing us unprecedented views into the galactic hearts.

‘With its ability to peer through the gas and dust that envelop newborn stars, Webb is the perfect telescope to explore the processes that drive star formation,’ wrote the European Space Agency, which collaborates on the telescope with the NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. Solar systems born shrouded in cosmic dust simply can’t be seen with visible-light telescopes like Hubble, the space agency said.

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Webb telescope’s new galactic image is jaw-dropping

In the image below, Webb peers through “giant clouds of dust.” Here’s what you’re seeing:

  • The radiant white bar is the core of the galaxy. Similar to the Milky Way, NGC 5068 is a barred spiral galaxy, meaning it has a long, bar-like structure at its center, which is made up of dense stars.

  • All those bright spots in both the core and the image are stars. Many thousands are visible. And while we can’t see them, many of those stars almost certainly harbor wild and exotic planets.

  • On the right is a curved spiral arm of the galaxy. (In our galaxy, Earth inhabits the far reaches of a spiral arm(opens in a new tab).)

  • The overall skeleton-like structure in the galaxy is made up of colossal dust clusters and filaments, explains ESA.

A highly detailed view of the center of the spiral galaxy NGC 5068.

A highly detailed view of the center of the spiral galaxy NGC 5068.
Credit: ESA / NASA / CSA / J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST team

The powerful capabilities of the Webb telescope

The Webb Telescope is designed to peer into the deepest cosmos and reveal unprecedented insights into the early universe. But it’s also peering into intriguing planets in our galaxy and even planets in our solar system.

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Here’s how Webb is achieving unparalleled results and likely will for decades:

  • Giant mirror: Webb’s light-catching mirror is more than 21 feet wide. It is over two and a half times the size of the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant and ancient objects. As described above, the telescope is peering into stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

    “We will see the very first stars and galaxies that have ever formed,” Jean Creighton, an astronomer and director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Mashable in 2021.

  • Infrared view: Unlike Hubble, which sees mostly light visible to us, Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it sees light in the infrared spectrum. This allows us to see much more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths(opens in a new tab) compared to visible light, so light waves glide more efficiently through cosmic clouds; light doesn’t collide as often and isn’t scattered by these densely packed particles. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared vision can penetrate places Hubble cannot.

    “Lift the veil,” Creighton said.

  • Peering into distant exoplanets: The Webb telescope it carries specialized equipment called spectrometers(opens in a new tab) that will revolutionize our understanding of these distant worlds. The tools can decipher which molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, whether they are gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will examine exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we will find.

    “We may learn things we never thought about,” Mercedes López-Morales, exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian(opens in a new tab)he told Mashable in 2021.

    Astronomers have already successfully found intriguing chemical reactions on a planet 700 light-years away, and the observatory has begun observing one of the most anticipated places in the cosmos: the Earth-sized rocky planets of the TRAPPIST solar system.


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