In both visible light and infrared, we get a preview of the spectacular advances that await the James Webb Space Telescope.
What astronomers see isn’t just determined by the telescope you view the Universe with.
This multi-wavelength view of the nearby Andromeda galaxy shows what is revealed in radio, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray light. Gas, dust, stars, and stellar remnants that emit light in different energies and at different temperatures can all be highlighted, dependent on which wavelength is chosen. (PLANCK MISSION TEAM; ESA / NASA)
Views are wavelength-dependent, with ultraviolet, visible, and infrared each revealing their own unique details.
The Hubble Space Telescope, as imaged during its last and final servicing mission. Although it hasn’t been serviced in over a decade, Hubble continues to be humanity’s flagship ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared telescope in space, and has taken us beyond the limits of any other space-based or ground-based observatory. (NASA)
NASA’s Hubble, by imaging the same objects in different wavelengths, showcases dramatically different views.
Composed of gas and dust, the pictured pillar resides in a tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina, as imaged in visible light by Hubble. (NASA, ESA AND THE HUBBLE SM4 ERO TEAM)
The Carina Nebula, in visible light, shows off gas and dust surrounds star-forming regions.
Taken in infrared light, the image shows the dense column and the surrounding greenish-coloured gas all but disappear. Only a faint outline of the pillar remains. By penetrating the wall of gas and dust, the infrared vision of the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) reveals the infant star that is most likely responsible for the jet. (NASA, ESA AND THE HUBBLE SM4 ERO TEAM)
In the infrared, the gas is transparent, revealing the violence of newborn stars.
The full gamut of visible-light data on the Horsehead Nebula reveals color and structure, but still shows a huge amount of darkness, as much remains invisible. This is the only image in the collection that does not have an impressive Hubble view in the visible part of the spectrum. (ESO, VIA HTTPS://WWW.ESO.ORG/PUBLIC/IMAGES/ESO0202A/)
The Horsehead Nebula appears as light-blocking dust silhouetted against an illuminated backdrop.
The Horsehead Nebula appears transparent and ethereal when seen at infrared wavelengths. The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that easily are visible in infrared light. (NASA / ESA / HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM)
But in infrared light, the dust’s glows brightly, radiating copiously in these longer wavelengths.
The star-forming region NGC 2174 is largely obscured in the visible part of the spectrum, with details such as heavy element composition and the gas distribution at the region’s edge revealed most prominently in these optical wavelengths. (NASA, ESA, AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (STSCI/AURA), AND J. HESTER)
Star-forming region NGC 2174 showcases evaporating gas shrouding the interior processes.
Infrared light penetrates more dust and gas than visible light, allowing additional details to become visible. A jet of material from a newly forming star is visible in one of the pillars, just above and left of center in the infrared image. Additionally, background galaxies can be clearly seen in the upper right of the image. (NASA, ESA, AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (STSCI/AURA), AND J. HESTER)
But the infrared reveals jets, stars, gas details, and even distant background galaxies.
The largest stellar nursery in the local group, 30 Doradus in the Tarantula Nebula, has the most massive stars thus far known to humanity. These visible light views are spectacular, but fail to reveal a number of details shrouded in gas and dust. (NASA, ESA, F. PARESCE (INAF-IASF, BOLOGNA, ITALY), R. O’CONNELL (UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, CHARLOTTESVILLE), AND THE WIDE FIELD CAMERA 3 SCIENCE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE)
In the Large Magellanic Cloud, 30 Doradus is the Local Group’s largest star-forming region.
The massive stellar grouping R136, at right, contains stars up to 260 times the mass of the Sun. Many more details about the nebula’s interior are available in the infrared. (NASA, ESA, F. PARESCE (INAF-IASF, BOLOGNA, ITALY), R. O’CONNELL (UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, CHARLOTTESVILLE), AND THE WIDE FIELD CAMERA 3 SCIENCE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE)
With infrared eyes, thousands of redder stars are brightly revealed, while small dust particles are rendered invisible.
The Pillars of Creation, as viewed in visible light by Hubble, are exquisitely beautiful, and reveal a myriad of details about the external gas and dust structure comprising the pillars. But details about what’s occurring inside and behind those pillars are extremely sparse in visible light. (NASA, ESA AND THE HUBBLE SM4 ERO TEAM)
Finally, the Pillars of Creation might be the most iconic image of all.
In the infrared, the majority of the gas and dust in the Pillars of Creation is rendered invisible, showcasing the objects and processes at play inside and behind them. (NASA, ESA AND THE HUBBLE SM4 ERO TEAM)
In the infrared, the newly created stars inside the pillars finally show themselves.
An artist’s conception (2015) of what the James Webb Space Telescope will look like when complete and successfully deployed. This will be the key observatory in finding the Universe’s most distant galaxies: the ones that Hubble cannot reveal, as well as other record-breaking scientific firsts. (NORTHROP GRUMMAN)
With James Webb Space Telescope’s 2021 launch upcoming, our infrared views will surpass anything known today.
The James Webb Space Telescope vs. Hubble in size (main) and vs. an array of other telescopes (inset) in terms of wavelength and sensitivity. It should be able to see the truly first galaxies, the earliest, most pristine stars, the smallest directly imaged planets and more. Its power is truly unprecedented, as it’s more than an order of magnitude better than Spitzer across all relevant wavelengths. (NASA / JWST SCIENCE TEAM)
Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more. Ethan Siegel is the author of
Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.