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The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of 2023

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The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has wrapped up its first full year of scientific operations, and beyond “breaking” cosmology, the telescope has also delivered some of the most spectacular photos of deep space ever seen.

After many years of construction and $10 billion, it appears that the hard work and money has been worth it and then some. The talented scientists, engineers, and image processors have taken humanity on a journey through the cosmos that is unlike any before it.

Their hard work and dedication have pushed humanity’s reach further than ever, detecting light that has been traveling through the vast expanse of space for more than 13 billion years. To grapple with our place in the Universe, we must understand the Universe itself, and Webb has unraveled some of the greatest mysteries while uncovering new puzzles. Within each of the beautiful photos below are incredible new insights, remarkable scientific achievements, and cosmological conundrums.

NGC 346: A Nearby Mirror of the Distant Past

NGC 346 is a young cluster of stars located about 200,000 light-years from Earth in the famed Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). NGC 346 is exciting to scientists because its conditions mirror what the early Universe may have been like about 10 billion years ago when star formation was frenzied and frequent.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
NGC 346 (NIRCam) | Credit: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Olivia C. Jones (UK ATC), Guido De Marchi (ESTEC), Margaret Meixner (USRA) | Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI), Nolan Habel (USRA), Laura Lenkić (USRA), Laurie E. U. Chu (NASA Ames)

The Building Blocks of Life

Webb’s incredible imaging instruments enable it to peer through interstellar dust and resolve details that prior observations have missed. Looking at the Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud 630 light-years from Earth, Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) found the building blocks of life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
“The cold, wispy cloud material (blue, center) is illuminated in the infrared by the glow of the young, outflowing protostar Ced 110 IRS 4 (orange, upper left). The light from numerous background stars, seen as orange dots behind the cloud, can be used to detect ices in the cloud, which absorb the starlight passing through them,” the Webb team explains. | Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and M. Zamani (ESA/Webb); Science: F. Sun (Steward Observatory), Z. Smith (Open University), and the Ice Age ERS Team.

Ancient, Massive Galaxies Defy Explanation

While not among Webb’s most visually interesting images, the space telescope identified six galaxies, as seen about 500 to 700 million years after the Big Bang, that are equal parts exciting and baffling.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
A mosaic collected by James Webb of a region of space close to the Big Dipper, with insets showing the location of six new candidate galaxies from the dawn of the universe. | Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology). Image processing: G. Brammer (Niels Bohr Institute’s Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen).

Spectacular Scenes Just Before a Supernova Explosion

This beautiful Wolf-Rayet star is the brief phase of a star just before its going supernova. This is the star WR 124, located about 15,000 light-years from Earth in the Sagittarius constellation.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
The Wolf-Rayet star WR 124 | Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

Gravity Bending Spacetime

Even though Webb can peer very far into space — and therefore long into the distant past of the Universe — it must leverage the power of gravitational lensing to detect the faintest, distant light. Gravitational lensing is when a bunch of matter creates a gravitational field that bends and magnifies the light from objects behind it. A foreground galaxy cluster enabled Webb to spot the Cosmic Seahorse galaxy, and the image shows the incredible light-bending effects of gravity in the Universe.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
The Cosmic Seahorse galaxy | Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Rigby

The First Photo of an Asteroid Belt Outside the Solar System

The James Webb Space Telescope achieved yet another milestone this year by capturing the first-ever photo of an asteroid belt outside the Solar System.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
“This image of the dusty debris disc surrounding the young star Fomalhaut is from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). It reveals three nested belts extending out to 23 billion kilometers (14.3 billion miles) from the star. The inner belts — which had never been seen before — were revealed by Webb for the first time.” | Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, A. Pagan (STScI), A. Gáspár (University of Arizona)

45,000 Galaxies Sparkle in a Single Webb Image

As part of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey, or JADES, Webb captured an image of the GOODS-South area of the sky and found a staggering 45,000 galaxies, nearly every single one showing signs of star formation.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
“This infrared image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was taken for the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey, or JADES, program. It shows a portion of an area of the sky known as GOODS-South, which has been well studied by the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories. More than 45,000 galaxies are visible here.” | Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), Ben Johnson (CfA), Sandro Tacchella (Cambridge), Marcia Rieke (University of Arizona), Daniel Eisenstein (CfA). Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Answering the Cosmic Questions

In Webb’s Herbig-Haro 46/47 image, a question-mark shaped galaxy appeared. PetaPixel chatted with the generous folks at the Space Science Telescope Institute (STScI) in Maryland to learn more.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
Herbig-Haro 46/47 as seen by Webb’s NIRCam instrument. The red square shows where the cosmic question mark is located. Download the full-resolution version from STScI. | Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA / Image processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)
The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
Crop showing the cosmic question mark that puzzled viewers this year.

“The question mark-shaped object is probably a pair of distant galaxies in the background which are merging,” explained Dr. Christopher T. Britt, an Education and Outreach Scientist at STScI’s Office of Public Outreach. “As they approach and interact, the shape of each galaxy can be distorted, including by ripping out long streamers of stars and gas.”

Webb’s Stunning View of Saturn

Saturn’s rings have never looked so beautiful. Webb captured its first photo of Saturn this year, uncovering details never seen before. Webb took another crack at Saturn this summer, delivering an even better planetary portrait.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
Saturn, as seen by NIRCam. | Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Matthew Tiscareno (SETI Institute), Matthew Hedman (University of Idaho), Maryame El Moutamid (Cornell University), Mark Showalter (SETI Institute), Leigh Fletcher (University of Leicester), Heidi Hammel (AURA). Image processing by Joseph DePasquale.

Uranus’ Rings and Moons Dazzle

Saturn isn’t the only member of the Solar System getting the Webb portrait treatment. NIRCam also looked at Uranus, showing the beautiful, serene planet, its mysterious rings, and its moons.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
“This image of Uranus from NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows the planet and its rings in new clarity. The Webb image exquisitely captures Uranus’ seasonal north polar cap, including the bright, white, inner cap and the dark lane in the bottom of the polar cap. Uranus’ dim inner and outer rings are also visible in this image, including the elusive Zeta ring — the extremely faint and diffuse ring closest to the planet,” explains NASA. This image also includes nine of Uranus’ 27 known moons. Clockwise, starting at 2 o’clock, the visible moons are Rosalind, Puck, Belinda, Desdemona, Cressida, Bianca, Portia, Juliet, and Perdita. | Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Jupiter’s Atmosphere is Wilder than We Thought

Not one to be left out, the giant Jupiter was imaged this year, too. Thanks to Webb’s resolution, scientists discovered a high-speed jet stream in the planet’s atmosphere.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
Jupiter has never looked so beautiful. Notice the auroras at the planet’s north and south poles. | Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

A Cosmic Clash of the Titans

NGC 3256, a “peculiar galaxy,” looks dazzling in Webb’s image. The cosmic collision shows a galactic merger about 120 million light-years away, and the violent explosion triggered significant star formation.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
NGC 3256 | Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, L. Armus, A. Evans

Amazing M51

As part of its Feedback in Emerging extragalactic Star clusTers, or FEAST, observations, Webb looked at the M51 galaxy. And, well, it’s incredible. (https://petapixel.com/2023/08/31/photo-of-a-cosmic-whirlpool-offers-new-details-on-star-formation/)

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
M51 as seen by NIRCam | Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team
The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
M51 as seen by MIRI | Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team

Crab Nebula and M83

As part of a series of investigations, Webb looked at the Crab Nebula and the M83 galaxy, and wow, they look amazing. In PetaPixel‘s full coverage of the images, there are numerous Hubble versus Webb comparisons that show just how far we have com in terms of space telescope imaging technology.

Mysteries in the Heart of Our Galaxy

Sagittarius C is a very dense region in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Thanks to Webb’s new observations, scientists learned about new features of Earth’s home, including discovering key details about star formation.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
“The NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals a portion of the Milky Way’s dense core in a new light. An estimated 500,000 stars shine in this image of the Sagittarius C (Sgr C) region, along with some as-yet unidentified features. A large region of ionized hydrogen, shown in cyan, contains intriguing needle-like structures that lack any uniform orientation.” | Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and S. Crowe (University of Virginia)

The Ring Nebula is Superb

The Ring Nebula, which looks like an epic sports stadium, delivered one of Webb’s most amazing subjects of 2023. Thanks to the spatial resolution of NIRCam and MIRI, scientists captured new details of the filament structures of the Ring Nebula, also known as M57, that have never been seen before.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
NIRCam image of the Ring Nebula | Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson
The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
MIRI image of the Ring Nebula | Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson

The Most Colorful View of the Universe Ever

We are wrapping up the Webb roundup by showing the power of the James Webb Space Telescope when used alongside other observatories, like the Hubble Space Telescope. By compositing data from each space telescope, scientists this year were able to deliver the most colorful view of the Universe ever.

The Best James Webb Space Telescope Photos of the Year (2023)
Galaxy cluster MACS0416 (Hubble and Webb composite image) | Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, J. Diego (Instituto de Física de Cantabria, Spain), J. D’Silva (U. Western Australia), A. Koekemoer (STScI), J. Summers & R. Windhorst (ASU), and H. Yan (U. Missouri)

What will the James Webb Space Telescope discover and see in 2024?



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