NASA’s Webb Space Telescope: Capturing All That Glitters in Galaxies

James Webb Space Telescope Primary Mirror Alignment

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

An international research team will survey the stars, star clusters, and dust that lie within 19 nearby galaxies.

To understand galaxies, you have to understand how stars form. Over 100 researchers from around the world have collaborated to bring together observations of nearby spiral galaxies taken with the world’s most powerful radio, visible, and ultraviolet telescopes – and will soon add a full suite of high-resolution infrared images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. With this groundbreaking data set, astronomers will be able to study stars as they start to form within dark, dusty gas clouds, untangle when those infant stars blow away that gas and dust, and identify more mature stars that are puffing off layers of gas and dust – all for the first time in a diverse set of spiral galaxies.

Galaxy NGC 3351

This image of spiral galaxy NGC 3351 combines observations from several observatories to reveal details about its stars and gas. Radio observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) show dense molecular gas in magenta. The Very Large Telescope’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument highlights where young massive stars illuminate their surroundings, set off in red. The Hubble Space Telescope’s images highlight dust lanes in white and newly formed stars in blue. High-resolution infrared images from the Webb Space Telescope will help researchers identify where stars are forming behind dust and study the earliest stages of star formation in this galaxy. Credit: Science: NASA, ESA, ESO-Chile, ALMA, NAOJ, NRAO; image processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Spirals are some of the most captivating shapes in the universe. They appear in intricate seashells, carefully constructed spider webs, and even in the curls of ocean waves. Spirals on cosmic scales – as seen in galaxies – are even more arresting, not only for their beauty, but also for the overwhelming amount of information they contain. How do stars and star clusters form? Until recently, a complete answer used to lie out of reach, blocked by gas and dust. Within the first year of operations, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will help researchers complete a more detailed sketch of the stellar life cycle with high-resolution infrared-light images of 19 galaxies.

The telescope will also provide a few key “puzzle pieces” that were missing until now. “JWST touches on so many different phases of the stellar life cycle – all in tremendous resolution,” said Janice Lee, Gemini Observatory chief scientist at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab in Tucson, Arizona. “Webb will reveal star formation at its very earliest stages, right when gas collapses to form stars and heats up the surrounding dust.”

Lee is joined by David Thilker of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Kathryn Kreckel of Heidelberg University in Germany, and 40 additional members of the multi-wavelength survey program known as PHANGS (Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS). Their mission? Not only to unravel the mysteries of star formation with Webb’s high-resolution infrared images, but also to share the datasets with the entire astronomical community to accelerate discovery.

The Rhythms of Star Formation

PHANGS is novel, in part, because it brought together more than 100 international experts to study star formation from beginning to end. They are targeting galaxies that can be seen face-on from Earth and that are, on average, 50 million light-years away. The large collaboration began with microwave light images of 90 galaxies from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. Astronomers use this data to produce molecular gas maps to study the raw materials for star formation. Once the Very Large Telescope’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument, also in Chile, came online, they obtained data known as spectra to study later phases of star formation of 19 galaxies, particularly after star clusters have cleared nearby gas and dust. The space-based Hubble Space Telescope has provided visible and ultraviolet light observations of 38 galaxies to add high-resolution images of individual stars and star clusters.

Galaxy NGC 1300

This image of spiral galaxy NGC 1300 combines multiple observations to map stellar populations and gas. Radio light observed by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), represented in yellow, highlight the clouds of cold molecular gas that provide the raw material from which stars form. Data from the Very Large Telescope’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument is represented in red and magenta, capturing the impact of young, massive stars on their surrounding gas. Visible and ultraviolet light captured by the Hubble Space Telescope highlights dust lanes in gold and very young, hot stars in blue. High-resolution infrared images from the Webb Space Telescope will help researchers identify where stars are forming behind dust and study the earliest stages of star formation in this galaxy.
Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, ESO-Chile, ALMA, NAOJ, NRAO; image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

The missing elements, which Webb will fill in, are largely in areas of the galaxies that are obscured by dust – regions where stars are actively beginning to form. “We’re going to clearly see star clusters in the hearts of these dense molecular clouds that before we only had indirect evidence of,” Thilker said. “Webb gives us a way to look inside these ‘star factories’ to see the freshly assembled star clusters and measure their properties before they evolve.”

The new data will also help the team pinpoint the ages of stellar populations in a diverse sample of galaxies, which will help researchers build more accurate statistical models. “We’re always putting the context of the small scales into the big picture of galaxies,” explained Kreckel. “With Webb, we’ll trace the evolutionary sequence of each galaxy’s stars and star clusters.”

Another important answer they’re seeking involves the dust surrounding the stars, within the interstellar medium. Webb will help them determine which areas of the gas and dust are associated with specific star-forming regions, and which are free-floating interstellar material. “This couldn’t be done before, beyond the nearest galaxies. It will be transformative,” Thilker added.

The team is also working to understand the timing of the star-formation cycle. “Timescales are critical in astronomy and physics,” Lee said. “How long does each stage of star formation last? How might those timelines vary in different galaxy environments? We want to measure when these stars free themselves from their gas clouds to understand how star formation is disrupted.”

Science for All

These Webb observations will be taken as part of a Treasury program, which means they are not only available immediately to the public, but they will also be of broad and enduring scientific value. The team will work to create and release data sets that align Webb’s data to each of the complementary data sets from ALMA, MUSE, and Hubble, allowing future researchers to sift through each galaxy and their stellar populations easily, toggling on and off various wavelengths – and zoom into individual pixels of the images. They will provide inventories of different phases of the star-formation cycle, including regions of star formation, young stars, star clusters, and local dust properties.

This research will be conducted as part of Webb’s General Observer (GO) programs, which are competitively selected using a dual-anonymous review system, the same system that is used to allocate time on the Hubble Space Telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

5 Comments on "NASA’s Webb Space Telescope: Capturing All That Glitters in Galaxies"

  1. Cynthia Binder | January 23, 2022 at 9:23 pm | Reply

    Best news all year. Webb telescope n this article

  2. Babu G. Ranganathan | January 24, 2022 at 7:05 am | Reply

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    THE CELL could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.

    CATCH-22 FOR EVOLUTIONARY ORIGIN OF LIFE

    Just having the right materials, elements, and conditions do not mean that life can arise by chance.

    Miller, in his famous experiment in 1953 showed that individual amino acids (the building blocks of life) could come into existence by chance. But, it’s not enough just to have amino acids. The various amino acids that make-up life must link together in a precise sequence, just like the letters in a sentence, to form functioning protein molecules. If they’re not in the right sequence the protein molecules won’t work. It has never been shown that various amino acids can bind together into a sequence by chance to form protein molecules. Even the simplest cell is made up of many millions of various protein molecules.

    What many don’t realize is that although oxygen is necessary for life’s processes, the presence of oxygen would prevent life from coming into being. This is because oxygen is destructive unless there are mechanisms already in place to control, direct, and regulate it, such as what we find in already existing forms of life.

    RNA and DNA are made up of molecules (nucleic acids) that must also exist in the right sequence. Furthermore, none of these sequential molecules, proteins, DNA, RNA, can function outside of a complete and living cell and all are mutually dependent on one another. One cannot come into existence without the other.

    Mathematicians have said any event in the universe with odds of 10 to 50th power or greater is impossible! The probability of just a single average size protein molecule arising by chance is 10 to the 65th power. The late great British scientist Sir Frederick Hoyle calculated that the odds of even the simplest cell coming into existence by chance is 10 to the 40,000th power! How large is this? Consider that the total number of atoms in our universe is 10 to the 82nd power.

    The cell could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.

    Alien beings, even if they do exist, could not have evolved. How could they have survived millions of years while the very biological structures, organs, and systems necessary for their survival were supposedly still evolving? Life, in any form (even a single-celled organism), must be complete, fully integrated, and fully-functioning from the very start to be fit for survival.

    Of course, once there is a complete and living cell then the code and mechanisms exist to direct the formation of more cells. The problem for evolutionists is how did the cell originate when there were no directing code and mechanisms in nature. Natural laws may explain how a cell or airplane works but mere undirected natural laws could not have brought about the existence of either.

    What about synthetic life? Scientists didn’t create life itself. What they’ve done is, by using intelligent design and sophisticated technology, scientists built DNA code from scratch and then they implanted that man-made DNA into an already existing living cell and alter that cell. That’s what synthetic life is.

    Through genetic engineering scientists have been able to produce new forms of life by altering already existing forms of life, but they have never created life from non-living matter. Even if they do, it won’t be by chance but by intelligent design. That doesn’t help the theory of evolution.

    What about natural selection? Natural selection doesn’t create or produce anything. It can only “select” from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value. If a variation occurs that helps a species survive, that survival is called ” natural selection.” It’s a passive process. There’s no conscious selection by nature, and natural selection only operates in nature once there is life and reproduction and not before, so it would not be of assistance to the origin of life.

    Science can’t prove we’re here by chance or design. Neither was observed. Both are positions of faith. The issue is which faith is best supported by science. Let the scientific arguments of both sides be presented.

    Read my popular Internet articles:

    THE NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION
    ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH

    Visit my Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Author of the popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

    • A concerned simple person | January 24, 2022 at 7:14 pm | Reply

      Can you cite your sources? Multiple times you reference scientists and mathematicians, which scientists and mathematicians are you speaking of? If you really have researched this topic, then you should have a list of sources. Anyone who writes research papers knows this is a very important process, and should not be overlooked. Lest you look like a fool.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | January 25, 2022 at 4:45 am | Reply

      Meaningless superstition; pseudoscience references. And as “A concerned simple person” notes, you have nothing that would make anyone else chose that above known facts of science.

      The article was about a new astronomical instrument, making it fully meaningless to discuss science and rationality with someone who didn’t use science and rationality to reach the dark corner of knowing nothing. But for the innocent bystander, note that the creationist ‘probability’ argument doesn’t apply for the massively parallel process of evolution in populations. Each of us contains ~ 100 mutations of nucleotide changes compared to our parent’s donated germ cells of 6 billion base pairs, so we are a (6*10^7)^-100 ~ 10^-800 events or ‘impossible’ events for creationists – obvioulsy for them humans don’t exist.

      But evolution happens and anyone can see that for themselves by searching out open sites such as NCBI and confirm that all living cells share a common genetic machinery – from a common ancestor. All cells using DNA is itself the evidence.

      And we now know from evolutionary methods that it is evolution all the way down.

      “Our earliest, ‘half-alive’ ancestor needed little boost from heat
      Life on Earth assembled itself in warm, mildly alkaline conditions, study says”

      “Now, researchers have reconstructed the chemical reactions that would have allowed life to assemble. They found that as life was evolving, it only needed water, hydrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2), a dash of salt, and a little geothermal heat to get started.”

      “Because each reaction needs a heat boost to get started, one reaction can feed the next, keeping a protocell’s metabolism going. “The energy for life is in life itself,” Martin says. “It’s unfolding in these reactions.””

      [ https://www.science.org/content/article/our-earliest-half-alive-ancestor-needed-little-boost-heat ]

      The pathway life we observer that life took directly rejects the creationist argument that evolution didn’t happen, that selection didn’t happen or that natural processes are goal directed and biologists have concerns about ‘information’ rather than population genetics. It is completely irrelevant but it is also wrong to claim that selection doesn’t create what we call “apparent design” of traits or channel the information of survivable cell traits into the genome – because that is *precisely* what selection does!

      And we all know it, or should know it – it isn’t Webb platform rocket science.

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