Last week, NASA rolled back the curtains on a photo gallery that heralds the next era of space exploration: the first images from the James Webb Telescope. The Advanced Webb Telescope has given us some of the most detailed views of the most distant cosmic objects in the galaxy. But that wasn’t the only big space news of the past week. Here’s our weekly recap of all the space news from the past week.
Hubble captures a ‘galactic gem’
In the vast depths of space, entire galaxies can collide and merge with each other in a process that throws up vast nebulae of dust and debris that will lead to the birth of new stars. Webb’s predecessor, Hubble, captured such an event: CGCG 396-2. CGCG 396-2 is an unusual multi-armed galaxy merger that lies 520 million light-years from our planet in the constellation of Orion.
This fusion was observed by the Galaxy Zoo volunteers. Galaxy Zoo is a citizen science project where thousands of volunteers classify galaxies to help scientists sort through large amounts of data generated by various robotic telescopes. The most astronomically interesting objects from the Galaxy Zoo project are selected for follow-up observations with Hubble after a public vote.
SpaceX booster explosion
SpaceX’s booster rocket, the first half of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket system, caught fire while undergoing pre-launch testing on Monday. In the past, SpaceX has launched early prototypes of Starship’s top half several times nearly 10 kilometers above the ground, but it has never launched the nearly 122-meter-tall fully-stacked rocket system into orbit. It is a much more difficult task.
Company founder Elon Musk later said the booster rocket would likely return to its Texas launch pad this week. Musk told Reuters: “The damage is minor, but the booster will be moved to the high bay for inspections, and will likely return to the launch pad next week.” The company had targeted late summer for the spacecraft’s first orbital flight, but Monday’s explosion threw that timeline into question.
Boeing Aurora to build Virgin Galactic aircraft carrier plan
Virgin Galactic has signed a deal with Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences to build the new twin-body carrier plane called SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry the company’s next-generation spacecraft to space.
Virgin said the new carrier planes, called “motherships”, are designed for faster production rates and to perform more than 200 flights a year. Under the agreement signed by the two companies, Aurora will deliver parts of the craft for assembly in 2025.
Webb Telescope: The Universe Like Never Before
NASA unveiled the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope this week and they were as stunning as we could imagine. The first image shared by the space agency was of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 and other cosmic objects in a deep field image. Webb took about four days to create the image, while Hubble took more than ten days for a much lower resolution image.
The second “image” was spectral data from the gas giant planet WASP-96b, located nearly 1,150 light-years away. The first spectrum of an exoplanet taken by Webb is probably the most exciting “image” for scientists as it revealed the telltale signs of water vapor on the distant planet. This is the most detailed near-infrared transmission spectrum of an exoplanet captured to date and covers an exceptionally wide range of wavelengths.
The third image was of a planetary nebula surrounding a dying star. Called the Southern Ring Nebula or “Eight-Shard Nebula,” its image showed for the first time that the second, dimmer star at its center is shrouded in dust. The other brighter star is younger and may project its own planetary nebula in the future.
The fourth image was a huge mosaic of Stephan’s Quintet and is the largest image taken by Webb to date. The image spans over 150 million pixels and is built from 1,000 separate image files. It shows the dramatic impact of shock waves as galaxies pass through the cluster. The image also shows signs of a supermassive black hole at the center of one of the galaxies in unprecedented detail.
The last and last shared by NASA was that of NGC 3324, a star forming region in the Carina Nebula. The image looked like “mountains” and “valleys” dotted with twinkling stars. This region of the nebula has been captured in infrared for the first time and shows previously invisible star birth zones.