New NASA Webb Space Telescope Data Has Astronomers Buzzing on Twitter

If the last few days are any indication, we're about to witness a starry-eyed future for astronomy.

Monisha Ravisetti Former Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments. Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Monisha Ravisetti
3 min read
Violet shades make up the dusty, thick spiral of Messier 74.

Messier 74 in all its hypnotic glory.

NASA/Gabriel Brammer via Twitter

Though it's been more than a week since NASA revealed its first exquisite set of James Webb Space Telescope images, exhilaration following that July 12 broadcast hasn't died down. And at the rate the JWST has been collecting cosmic data, I wouldn't expect it to anytime soon.

Already, tons of astronomers have been eagerly sifting through public JWST datasets, trying their best to make sense of the priceless information this $10 billion machine has captured while anchored in space a million miles from Earth. On Monday, for instance, Gabriel Brammer, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, posted a striking purple vortex on Twitter. It's a vivid abyss rooted in the JWST data Brammer downloaded online of distant galaxy NGC 628, otherwise known as Messier 74 or the "Phantom Galaxy."

"Oh, good god," Brammer tweeted of the 30-million-light-year-away, spiral body's hypnotic glow. 

Basically, to get to this mesmerizing result, Brammer processed raw JWST data collected by the 'scope's Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, which was buried within an online portal called the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes. Then, Brammer assigned various color filters to the wavelengths MIRI detected emanating from Messier 74 -- a galaxy riddled with molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -- to make it really pop. 

"For a tiny bit more context," Brammer wrote as a response to curious commenters, "the purple color cast here is actually 'real' in the sense that emission from interstellar cigarette smoke (PAH molecules) makes the filters used for the blue and red channels brighter relative to the green." In other words, the heavy amethyst hues we see are kind of aesthetically accurate.

But when it comes to casually perusing and artistically imagining the JWST's findings, Brammer isn't alone in the slightest. In fact, NASA astronomer Janice Lee -- who Brammer said is responsible for "planning and executing" the data behind the violet majesty -- also took to Twitter with a chilling JWST concoction.

It's a GIF of galaxy NGC 7496 that switches between the Hubble's visible lens and the JWST's infrared lens in order to light up "dark dust lanes, revealing earliest stages of star formation in detail," Lee wrote in the Tweet. Fascinatingly, this beautiful rendition is part of a grander project Lee is part of: A program called Phangs, or Physics at High Angular Resolution in Nearby Galaxies.

According to NASA, Phangs has a mission to simply unravel the mysteries of star formation with the JWST while simultaneously sharing any discoveries with the entire astronomical community. In short, the idea is to help scientists across the world join hands while watching over JWST, thus expediting the process of decoding the unfiltered universe.

OK, but wait. There's more.

Some scientists on Twitter are even announcing they've begun submitting papers based on JWST information for peer review. It's all happening very, very fast. Mike Engesser, staff scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, for example, posted on Twitter about the submission of a JWST-related study concerning a transient and possible supernova. According to Engesser, this potential star explosion was caught by the JWST's Near-Infrared Camera. Notably, Brammer also aided this team with its analysis. 

On the top left, as Engesser explains, you can see the color composite image from the JWST's NIRCam data, and on the right, the Hubble Space Telescope's optical version of the same region, taken in 2011.

But digging even deeper, literally and metaphorically, several researchers have also zeroed in on what might be the "oldest galaxy we've ever seen," spotted by early-release JWST NIRCam data. To the untrained eye, it appears to be a red dot lurking on a pitch black background. 

Harvard University astronomer Rohan Naidu and colleagues say this galaxy could hold the mass of a billion suns in their arXiv preprint, which also touches on another notable galactic body. However, as Naidu points out, there's another team after the puzzle of this galaxy duo, too. They've also submitted a paper for review to arXiv. 

And these discoveries just scratch the surface of datasets that the JWST has in pocket already. In just nine days, the astronomy community has managed to squeeze out an incredible amount of information from the JWST's instruments. It would appear that, thanks to NASA's wonderful new lens on the universe, stargazers are bound to witness many magnificent years to come.